Asia Online (TAO)
by George Orwell
A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook
'This desert inaccessible
Under the shade of melancholy boughs'
As you like it.
U Po Kyin,
Sub-divisional Magistrate of Kyauktada, in Upper Burma,
was sitting in his veranda. It was only half past eight, but the
month was April, and there was a closeness in the air, a threat of
the long, stifling midday hours. Occasional faint breaths of wind,
seeming cool by contrast, stirred the newly drenched orchids that
hung from the eaves. Beyond the orchids one could see the dusty,
curved trunk of a palm tree, and then the blazing ultramarine sky.
Up in the zenith, so high that it dazzled one to look at them, a
few vultures circled without the quiver of a wing.
rather like a great porcelain idol, U Po Kyin gazed out
into the fierce sunlight. He was a man of fifty, so fat that for
years he had not risen from his chair without help, and yet shapely
and even beautiful in his grossness; for the Burmese do not sag and
bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically, like fruits
swelling. His face was vast, yellow and quite unwrinkled, and his
eyes were tawny. His feet--squat, high-arched feet with the toes
all the same length--were bare, and so was his cropped head, and he
wore one of those vivid Arakanese longyis with green and magenta
checks which the Burmese wear on informal occasions. He was
chewing betel from a lacquered box on the table, and thinking about
his past life.
It had been
a brilliantly successful life. U Po Kyin's earliest
memory, back in the eighties, was of standing, a naked pot-bellied
child, watching the British troops march victorious into Mandalay.
He remembered the terror he had felt of those columns of great
beef-fed men, red-faced and red-coated; and the long rifles over
their shoulders, and the heavy, rhythmic tramp of their boots. He
had taken to his heels after watching them for a few minutes. In
his childish way he had grasped that his own people were no match
for this race of giants. To fight on the side of the British, to
become a parasite upon them, had been his ruling ambition, even as
he had tried for a Government appointment, but he had
failed to get it, being poor and friendless, and for three years
he had worked in the stinking labyrinth of the Mandalay bazaars,
clerking for the rice merchants and sometimes stealing. Then when
he was twenty a lucky stroke of blackmail put him in possession of
four hundred rupees, and he went at once to Rangoon and bought his
way into a Government clerkship. The job was a lucrative one
though the salary was small. At that time a ring of clerks were
making a steady income by misappropriating Government stores, and
Po Kyin (he was plain Po Kyin then: the honorific U came years
later) took naturally to this kind of thing. However, he had too
much talent to spend his life in a clerkship, stealing miserably in
annas and pice. One day he discovered that the Government, being
short of minor officials, were going to make some appointments from
among the clerks. The news would have become public in another
week, but it was one of Po Kyin's qualities that his information
was always a week ahead of everyone else's. He saw his chance and
denounced all his confederates before they could take alarm. Most
of them were sent to prison, and Po Kyin was made an Assistant
Township Officer as the reward of his honesty. Since then he had
risen steadily. Now, at fifty-six, he was a Sub-divisional
Magistrate, and he would probably be promoted still further and
made an acting Deputy Commissioner, with Englishmen as his equals
and even his subordinates.
As a magistrate
his methods were simple. Even for the vastest
bribe he would never sell the decision of a case, because he knew
that a magistrate who gives wrong judgments is caught sooner or
later. His practice, a much safer one, was to take bribes from
both sides and then decide the case on strictly legal grounds.
This won him a useful reputation for impartiality. Besides his
revenue from litigants, U Po Kyin levied a ceaseless toll, a sort
of private taxation scheme, from all the villages under his
jurisdiction. If any village failed in its tribute U Po Kyin took
punitive measures--gangs of dacoits attacked the village, leading
villagers were arrested on false charges, and so forth--and it was
never long before the amount was paid up. He also shared the
proceeds of all the larger-sized robberies that took place in the
district. Most of this, of course, was known to everyone except U
Po Kyin's official superiors (no British officer will ever believe
anything against his own men) but the attempts to expose him
invariably failed; his supporters, kept loyal by their share of the
loot, were too numerous. When any accusation was brought against
him, U Po Kyin simply discredited it with strings of suborned
witnesses, following this up by counter-accusations which left him
in a stronger position than ever. He was practically invulnerable,
because he was too fine a judge of men ever to choose a wrong
instrument, and also because he was too absorbed in intrigue ever
to fail through carelessness or ignorance. One could say with
practical certainty that he would never be found out, that he would
go from success to success, and would finally die full of honour,
worth several lakhs of rupees.
And even beyond
the grave his success would continue. According to
Buddhist belief, those who have done evil in their lives will spend
the next incarnation in the shape of a rat, a frog or some other
low animal. U Po Kyin was a good Buddhist and intended to provide
against this danger. He would devote his closing years to good
works, which would pile up enough merit to outweigh the rest of his
life. Probably his good works would take the form of building
pagodas. Four pagodas, five, six, seven--the priests would tell
him how many--with carved stonework, gilt umbrellas and little
bells that tinkled in the wind, every tinkle a prayer. And he
would return to the earth in male human shape--for a woman ranks
at about the same level as a rat or a frog--or at best as some
dignified beast such as an elephant.
All these thoughts
flowed through U Po Kyin's mind swiftly and for
the most part in pictures. His brain, though cunning, was quite
barbaric, and it never worked except for some definite end; mere
meditation was beyond him. He had now reached the point to which
his thoughts had been tending. Putting his smallish, triangular
hands on the arms of his chair, he turned himself a little way
round and called, rather wheezily:
'Ba Taik! Hey, Ba Taik!'
Ba Taik, U Po
Kyin's servant, appeared through the beaded curtain
of the veranda. He was an under-sized, pock-marked man with a
timid and rather hungry expression. U Po Kyin paid him no wages,
for he was a convicted thief whom a word would send to prison. As
Ba Taik advanced he shikoed, so low as to give the impression that
he was stepping backwards.
'Most holy god?' he said.
'Is anyone waiting to see me, Ba Taik?'
Ba Taik enumerated
the visitors upon his fingers: 'There is the
headman of Thitpingyi village, your honour, who has brought
presents, and two villagers who have an assault case that is to be
tried by your honour, and they too have brought presents. Ko Ba
Sein, the head clerk of the Deputy Commissioner s office, wishes to
see you, and there is Ali Shah, the police constable, and a dacoit
whose name I do not know. I think they have quarrelled about some
gold bangles they have stolen. And there is also a young village
girl with a baby.'
'What does she want?' said U Po Kyin.
'She says that the baby is yours, most holy one.'
'Ah. And how much has the headman brought?'
Ba Taik thought it was only ten rupees and a basket of mangoes.
'Tell the headman,'
said U Po Kyin, 'that it should be twenty
rupees, and there will be trouble for him and his village if the
money is not here tomorrow. I will see the others presently. Ask
Ko Ba Sein to come to me here.'
Ba Sein appeared
in a moment. He was an erect, narrow-shouldered
man, very tall for a Burman, with a curiously smooth face that
recalled a coffee blancmange. U Po Kyin found him a useful tool.
Unimaginative and hardworking, he was an excellent clerk, and Mr
Macgregor, the Deputy Commissioner, trusted him with most of his
official secrets. U Po Kyin, put in a good temper by his thoughts,
greeted Ba Sein with a laugh and waved to the betel box.
'Well, Ko Ba
Sein, how does our affair progress? I hope that, as
dear Mr Macgregor would say'--U Po Kyin broke into English--'"eet
ees making perceptible progress"?'
Ba Sein did
not smile at the small joke. Sitting down stiff and
long-backed in the vacant chair, he answered:
sir. Our copy of the paper arrived this morning.
a copy of a bilingual paper called the Burmese Patriot.
It was a miserable eight-page rag, villainously printed on paper as
bad as blotting paper, and composed partly of news stolen from the
Rangoon Gazette, partly of weak Nationalist heroics. On the last
page the type had slipped and left the entire sheet jet black, as
though in mourning for the smallness of the paper's circulation.
The article to which U Po Kyin turned was of a rather different
stamp from the rest. It ran:
In these happy times, when we poor blacks are being uplifted by the
mighty western civilization, with its manifold blessings such as
the cinematograph, machine-guns, syphilis, etc., what subject
could be more inspiring than the private lives of our European
benefactors? We think therefore that it may interest our readers
to hear something of events in the up-country district of
Kyauktada. And especially of Mr Macgregor, honoured Deputy
Commissioner of said district.
is of the type of the Fine Old English Gentleman, such
as, in these happy days, we have so many examples before our eyes.
He is 'a family man' as our dear English cousins say. Very much a
family man is Mr Macgregor. So much so that he has already three
children in the district of Kyauktada, where he has been a year,
and in his last district of Shwemyo he left six young progenies
behind him. Perhaps it is an oversight on Mr Macgregor's part that
he has left these young infants quite unprovided for, and that some
of their mothers are in danger of starvation, etc., etc., etc.
There was a column of similar stuff, and wretched as it was, it was
well above the level of the rest of the paper. U Po Kyin read the
article carefully through, holding it at arm's length--he was long-
sighted--and drawing his lips meditatively back, exposing great
numbers of small, perfect teeth, blood-red from betel juice.
will get six months' imprisonment for this,' he said
'He does not
mind. He says that the only time when his creditors
leave him alone is when he is in prison.'
'And you say
that your little apprentice clerk Hla Pe wrote this
article all by himself? That is a very clever boy--a most
promising boy! Never tell me again that these Government High
Schools are a waste of time. Hla Pe shall certainly have his
'You think then, sir, that this article will be enough?'
U Po Kyin did
not answer immediately. A puffing, labouring noise
began to proceed from him; he was trying to rise from his chair.
Ba Taik was familiar with this sound. He appeared from behind the
beaded curtain, and he and Ba Sein put a hand under each of U Po
Kyin's armpits and hoisted him to his feet. U Po Kyin stood for a
moment balancing the weight of his belly upon his legs, with the
movement of a fish porter adjusting his load. Then he waved Ba
he said, answering Ba Sein's question, 'not enough by
any means. There is a lot to be done yet. But this is the right
He went to the
rail to spit out a scarlet mouthful of betel, and
then began to quarter the veranda with short steps, his hands
behind his back. The friction of his vast thighs made him waddle
slightly. As he walked he talked, in the base jargon of the
Government offices--a patchwork of Burmese verbs and English
'Now, let us
go into this affair from the beginning. We are going
to make a concerted attack on Dr Veraswami, who is the Civil
Surgeon and Superintendent of the jail. We are going to slander
him, destroy his reputation and finally ruin him for ever. It will
be rather a delicate operation.'
be no risk, but we have got to go slowly. We are not
proceeding against a miserable clerk or police constable. We are
proceeding against a high official, and with a high official, even
when he is an Indian, it is not the same as with a clerk. How does
one ruin a clerk? Easy; an accusation, two dozen witnesses,
dismissal and imprisonment. But that will not do here. Softly,
softly, softly is my way. No scandal, and above all no official
inquiry. There must be no accusations that can be answered, and
yet within three months I must fix it in the head of every European
in Kyauktada that the doctor is a villain. What shall I accuse him
of? Bribes will not do, a doctor does not get bribes to any
extent. What then?'
'We could perhaps
arrange a mutiny in the jail,' said Ba Sein.
'As superintendent, the doctor would be blamed.'
'No, it is too
dangerous. I do not want the jail warders firing
their rifles in all directions. Besides, it would be expensive.
Clearly, then, it must be disloyalty--Nationalism, seditious
propaganda. We must persuade the Europeans that the doctor holds
disloyal, anti-British opinions. That is far worse than bribery;
they expect a native official to take bribes. But let them suspect
his loyalty even for a moment, and he is ruined.'
'It would be
a hard thing to prove,' objected Ba Sein. 'The doctor
is very loyal to the Europeans. He grows angry when anything is
said against them. They will know that, do you not think?'
said U Po Kyin comfortably. 'No European
cares anything about proofs. When a man has a black face,
suspicion IS proof. A few anonymous letters will work wonders. It
is only a question of persisting; accuse, accuse, go on accusing--
that is the way with Europeans. One anonymous letter after
another, to every European in turn. And then, when their
suspicions are thoroughly aroused--' U Po Kyin brought one short
arm from behind his back and clicked his thumb and finger. He
added: 'We begin with this article in the Burmese Patriot. The
Europeans will shout with rage when they see it. Well, the next
move is to persuade them that it was the doctor who wrote it.'
'It will be
difficult while he has friends among the Europeans.
All of them go to him when they are ill. He cured Mr Macgregor of
his flatulence this cold weather. They consider him a very clever
doctor, I believe.'
you understand the European mind, Ko Ba Sein! If the
Europeans go to Veraswami it is only because there is no other
doctor in Kyauktada. No European has any faith in a man with a
black face. No, with anonymous letters it is only a question of
sending enough. I shall soon see to it that he has no friends
'There is Mr
Flory, the timber merchant,' said Ba Sein. (He
pronounced it 'Mr Porley'.) 'He is a close friend of the doctor.
I see him go to his house every morning when he is in Kyauktada.
Twice he has even invited the doctor to dinner.'
'Ah, now there
you are right. If Flory were a friend of the doctor
it could do us harm. You cannot hurt an Indian when he has a
European friend. It gives him--what is that word they are so fond
of?--prestige. But Flory will desert his friend quickly enough
when the trouble begins. These people have no feeling of loyalty
towards a native. Besides, I happen to know that Flory is a
coward. I can deal with him. Your part, Ko Ba Sein, is to watch
Mr Macgregor's movements. Has he written to the Commissioner
lately--written confidentially, I mean?'
'He wrote two
days ago, but when we steamed the letter open we
found it was nothing of importance.'
'Ah well, we
will give him something to write about. And as soon
as he suspects the doctor, then is the time for that other affair I
spoke to you of. Thus we shall--what does Mr Macgregor say? Ah
yes, "kill two birds with one stone". A whole flock of birds--ha,
U Po Kyin's
laugh was a disgusting bubbling sound deep down in his
belly, like the preparation for a cough; yet it was merry, even
childlike. He did not say any more about the 'other affair', which
was too private to be discussed even upon the veranda. Ba Sein,
seeing the interview at an end, stood up and bowed, angular as a
'Is there anything else your honour wishes done?' he said.
'Make sure that
Mr Macgregor has his copy of the Burmese Patriot.
You had better tell Hla Pe to have an attack of dysentery and stay
away from the office. I shall want him for the writing of the
anonymous letters. That is all for the present.'
'Then I may go, sir?'
'God go with
you,' said U Po Kyin rather abstractedly, and at once
shouted again for Ba Taik. He never wasted a moment of his day.
It did not take him long to deal with the other visitors and to
send the village girl away unrewarded, having examined her face and
said that he did not recognize her. It was now his breakfast time.
Violent pangs of hunger, which attacked him punctually at this hour
every morning, began to torment his belly. He shouted urgently:
'Ba Taik! Hey,
Ba Taik! Kin Kin! My breakfast! Be quick, I am
In the living-room
behind the curtain a table was already set out
with a huge bowl of rice and a dozen plates containing curries,
dried prawns and sliced green mangoes. U Po Kyin waddled to the
table, sat down with a grunt and at once threw himself on the food.
Ma Kin, his wife, stood behind him and served him. She was a thin
woman of five and forty, with a kindly, pale brown, simian face.
U Po Kyin took no notice of her while he was eating. With the bowl
close to his nose he stuffed the food into himself with swift,
greasy fingers, breathing fast. All his meals were swift,
passionate and enormous; they were not meals so much as orgies,
debauches of curry and rice. When he had finished he sat back,
belched several times and told Ma Kin to fetch him a green Burmese
cigar. He never smoked English tobacco, which he declared had no
taste in it.
Ba Taik's help, U Po Kyin dressed in his office
clothes, and stood for a while admiring himself in the long mirror
in the living-room. It was a wooden-walled room with two pillars,
still recognizable as teak-trunks, supporting the roof-tree, and it
was dark and sluttish as all Burmese rooms are, though U Po Kyin
had furnished it 'Ingaleik fashion' with a veneered sideboard and
chairs, some lithographs of the Royal Family and a fire-
extinguisher. The floor was covered with bamboo mats, much
splashed by lime and betel juice.
Ma Kin was sitting
on a mat in the corner, stitching an ingyi.
U Po Kyin turned slowly before the mirror, trying to get a glimpse
of his back view. He was dressed in a gaungbaung of pale pink
silk, an ingyi of starched muslin, and a paso of Mandalay silk,
a gorgeous salmon-pink brocaded with yellow. With an effort he
turned his head round and looked, pleased, at the paso tight and
shining on his enormous buttocks. He was proud of his fatness,
because he saw the accumulated flesh as the symbol of his
greatness. He who had once been obscure and hungry was now fat,
rich and feared. He was swollen with the bodies of his enemies;
a thought from which he extracted something very near poetry.
'My new paso
was cheap at twenty-two rupees, hey, Kin Kin?' he
Ma Kin bent
her head over her sewing. She was a simple, old-
fashioned woman, who had learned even less of European habits than
U Po Kyin. She could not sit on a chair without discomfort. Every
morning she went to the bazaar with a basket on her head, like a
village woman, and in the evenings she could be seen kneeling in
the garden, praying to the white spire of the pagoda that crowned
the town. She had been the confidante of U Po Kyin's intrigues for
twenty years and more.
'Ko Po Kyin,'
she said, 'you have done very much evil in your
U Po Kyin waved
his hand. 'What does it matter? My pagodas will
atone for everything. There is plenty of time.'
Ma Kin bent
her head over her sewing again, in an obstinate way she
had when she disapproved of something that U Po Kyin was doing.
'But, Ko Po
Kyin, where is the need for all this scheming and
intriguing? I heard you talking with Ko Ba Sein on the veranda.
You are planning some evil against Dr Veraswami. Why do you wish
to harm that Indian doctor? He is a good man.'
'What do you
know of these official matters, woman? The doctor
stands in my way. In the first place he refuses to take bribes,
which makes it difficult for the rest of us. And besides--well,
there is something else which you would never have the brains to
'Ko Po Kyin,
you have grown rich and powerful, and what good has it
ever done you? We were happier when we were poor. Ah, I remember
so well when you were only a Township Officer, the first time we
had a house of our own. How proud we were of our new wicker
furniture, and your fountain-pen with the gold clip! And when the
young English police-officer came to our house and sat in the best
chair and drank a bottle of beer, how honoured we thought
ourselves! Happiness is not in money. What can you want with more
nonsense! Attend to your cooking and sewing and
leave official matters to those who understand them.'
'Well, I do
not know. I am your wife and have always obeyed you.
But at least it is never too soon to acquire merit. Strive to
acquire more merit, Ko Po Kyin! Will you not, for instance, buy
some live fish and set them free in the river? One can acquire
much merit in that way. Also, this morning when the priests came
for their rice they told me that there are two new priests at the
monastery, and they are hungry. Will you not give them something,
Ko Po Kyin? I did not give them anything myself, so that you might
acquire the merit of doing it.'
U Po Kyin turned
away from the mirror. The appeal touched him a
little. He never, when it could be done without inconvenience,
missed a chance of acquiring merit. In his eyes his pile of merit
was a kind of bank deposit, everlastingly growing. Every fish set
free in the river, every gift to a priest, was a step nearer
Nirvana. It was a reassuring thought. He directed that the basket
of mangoes brought by the village headman should be sent down to
left the house and started down the road, with Ba Taik
behind him carrying a file of papers. He walked slowly, very
upright to balance his vast belly, and holding a yellow silk
umbrella over his head. His pink paso glittered in the sun like a
satin praline. He was going to the court, to try his day's cases.
At about the time when U Po Kyin began his morning's business, 'Mr
Porley' the timber merchant and friend of Dr Veraswami, was leaving
his house for the Club.
Flory was a
man of about thirty-five, of middle height, not ill
made. He had very black, stiff hair growing low on his head, and
a cropped black moustache, and his skin, naturally sallow, was
discoloured by the sun. Not having grown fat or bald he did not
look older than his age, but his face was very haggard in spite of
the sunburn, with lank cheeks and a sunken, withered look round the
eyes. He had obviously not shaved this morning. He was dressed in
the usual white shirt, khaki drill shorts and stockings, but
instead of a topi he wore a battered Terai hat, cocked over one
eye. He carried a bamboo stick with a wrist-thong, and a black
cocker spaniel named Flo was ambling after him.
All these were
secondary expressions, however. The first thing
that one noticed in Flory was a hideous birthmark stretching in a
ragged crescent down his left cheek, from the eye to the corner
of the mouth. Seen from the left side his face had a battered,
woebegone look, as though the birthmark had been a bruise--for it
was a dark blue in colour. He was quite aware of its hideousness.
And at all times, when he was not alone, there was a sidelongness
about his movements, as he manoeuvred constantly to keep the
birthmark out of sight.
was at the top of the maidan, close to the edge of
the jungle. From the gate the maidan sloped sharply down, scorched
and khaki-coloured, with half a dozen dazzling white bungalows
scattered round it. All quaked, shivered in the hot air. There
was an English cemetery within a white wall half-way down the hill,
and near by a tiny tin-roofed church. Beyond that was the European
Club, and when one looked at the Club--a dumpy one-storey wooden
building--one looked at the real centre of the town. In any town
in India the European Club is the spiritual citadel, the real seat
of the British power, the Nirvana for which native officials and
millionaires pine in vain. It was doubly so in this case, for it
was the proud boast of Kyauktada Club that, almost alone of Clubs
in Burma, it had never admitted an Oriental to membership. Beyond
the Club, the Irrawaddy flowed huge and ochreous glittering like
diamonds in the patches that caught the sun; and beyond the river
stretched great wastes of paddy fields, ending at the horizon in a
range of blackish hills.
The native town,
and the courts and the jail, were over to the
right, mostly hidden in green groves of peepul trees. The spire of
the pagoda rose from the trees like a slender spear tipped with
gold. Kyauktada was a fairly typical Upper Burma town, that had
not changed greatly between the days of Marco Polo and 1910, and
might have slept in the Middle Ages for a century more if it had
not proved a convenient spot for a railway terminus. In 1910 the
Government made it the headquarters of a district and a seat of
Progress--interpretable as a block of law courts, with their army
of fat but ravenous pleaders, a hospital, a school and one of those
huge, durable jails which the English have built everywhere between
Gibraltar and Hong Kong. The population was about four thousand,
including a couple of hundred Indians, a few score Chinese and
seven Europeans. There were also two Eurasians named Mr Francis
and Mr Samuel, the sons of an American Baptist missionary and a
Roman Catholic missionary respectively. The town contained no
curiosities of any kind, except an Indian fakir who had lived for
twenty years in a tree near the bazaar, drawing his food up in a
basket every morning.
as he came out of the gate. He had been half drunk
the night before, and the glare made him feel liverish. 'Bloody,
bloody hole!' he thought, looking down the hill. And, no one
except the dog being near, he began to sing aloud, 'Bloody, bloody,
bloody, oh, how thou art bloody' to the tune of 'Holy, holy, holy,
oh how Thou art holy ' as he walked down the hot red road, swishing
at the dried-up grasses with his stick. It was nearly nine o'clock
and the sun was fiercer every minute. The heat throbbed down on
one's head with a steady, rhythmic thumping, like blows from an
enormous bolster. Flory stopped at the Club gate, wondering
whether to go in or to go farther down the road and see Dr
Veraswami. Then he remembered that it was 'English mail day' and
the newspapers would have arrived. He went in, past the big tennis
screen, which was overgrown by a creeper with starlike mauve
In the borders
beside the path swaths of English flowers--phlox and
larkspur, hollyhock and petunia--not yet slain by the sun, rioted
in vast size and richness. The petunias were huge, like trees
almost. There was no lawn, but instead a shrubbery of native trees
and bushes--gold mohur trees like vast umbrellas of blood-red
bloom, frangipanis with creamy, stalkless flowers, purple
bougainvillea, scarlet hibiscus and the pink Chinese rose, bilious-
green crotons, feathery fronds of tamarind. The clash of colours
hurt one's eyes in the glare. A nearly naked mali, watering-can in
hand, was moving in the jungle of flowers like some large nectar-
On the Club
steps a sandy-haired Englishman, with a prickly
moustache, pale grey eyes too far apart, and abnormally thin calves
to his legs, was standing with his hands in the pockets of his
shorts. This was Mr Westfield, the District Superintendent of
Police. With a very bored air he was rocking himself backwards and
forwards on his heels and pouting his upper lip so that his
moustache tickled his nose. He greeted Flory with a slight
sideways movement of his head. His way of speaking was clipped and
soldierly, missing out every word that well could be missed out.
Nearly everything he said was intended for a joke, but the tone of
his voice was hollow and melancholy.
'Hullo, Flory me lad. Bloody awful morning, what?'
'We must expect
it at this time of year, I suppose,' Flory said.
He had turned himself a little sideways, so that his birthmarked
cheek was away from Westfield.
Couple of months of this coming. Last year we
didn't have a spot of rain till June. Look at that bloody sky,
not a cloud in it. Like one of those damned great blue enamel
saucepans. God! What'd you give to be in Piccadilly now, eh?'
'Have the English papers come?'
'Yes. Dear old
Punch, Pink'un and Vie Parisienne. Makes you
homesick to read 'em, what? Let's come in and have a drink before
the ice all goes. Old Lackersteen's been fairly bathing in it.
Half pickled already.'
They went in,
Westfield remarking in his gloomy voice, 'Lead on,
Macduff.' Inside, the Club was a teak-walled place smelling of
earth-oil, and consisting of only four rooms, one of which
contained a forlorn 'library' of five hundred mildewed novels, and
another an old and mangy billiard-table--this, however, seldom
used, for during most of the year hordes of flying beetles came
buzzing round the lamps and littered themselves over the cloth.
There were also a card-room and a 'lounge' which looked towards the
river, over a wide veranda; but at this time of day all the
verandas were curtained with green bamboo chicks. The lounge was
an unhomelike room, with coco-nut matting on the floor, and wicker
chairs and tables which were littered with shiny illustrated
papers. For ornament there were a number of 'Bonzo' pictures, and
the dusty skulls of sambhur. A punkah, lazily flapping, shook dust
into the tepid air.
There were three
men in the room. Under the punkah a florid, fine-
looking, slightly bloated man of forty was sprawling across the
table with his head in his hands, groaning in pain. This was Mr
Lackersteen, the local manager of a timber firm. He had been badly
drunk the night before, and he was suffering for it. Ellis, local
manager of yet another company, was standing before the notice-
board studying some notice with a look of bitter concentration. He
was a tiny wiry-haired fellow with a pale, sharp-featured face and
restless movements. Maxwell, the acting Divisional Forest Officer,
was lying in one of the long chairs reading the Field, and
invisible except for two large-boned legs and thick downy forearms.
'Look at this
naughty old man,' said Westfield, taking Mr
Lackersteen half affectionately by the shoulders and shaking him.
'Example to the young, what? There but for the grace of God and
all that. Gives you an idea what you'll be like at forty.'
Mr Lackersteen gave a groan which sounded like 'brandy'.
'Poor old chap,'
said Westfield, 'regular martyr to booze, eh?
Look at it oozing out of his pores. Reminds me of the old colonel
who used to sleep without a mosquito net. They asked his servant
why and the servant said: "At night, master too drunk to notice
mosquitoes; in the morning, mosquitoes too drunk to notice master."
Look at him--boozed last night and then asking for more. Got a
little niece coming to stay with him, too. Due tonight, isn't she,
'Oh, leave that
drunken sot alone,' said Ellis without turning
round. He had a spiteful Cockney voice. Mr Lackersteen groaned
again, '---- the niece! Get me some brandy, for Christ's sake.'
for the niece, eh? Seeing uncle under the table
seven times a week. Hey, butler! Bringing brandy for Lackersteen
a dark, stout Dravidian with liquid, yellow-irised eyes
like those of a dog, brought the brandy on a brass tray. Flory and
Westfield ordered gin. Mr Lackersteen swallowed a few spoonfuls of
brandy and sat back in his chair, groaning in a more resigned way.
He had a beefy, ingenuous face, with a toothbrush moustache. He
was really a very simple-minded man, with no ambitions beyond
having what he called 'a good time'. His wife governed him by the
only possible method, namely, by never letting him out of her sight
for more than an hour or two. Only once, a year after they were
married, she had left him for a fortnight, and had returned
unexpectedly a day before her time, to find Mr Lackersteen, drunk,
supported on either side by a naked Burmese girl, while a third up-
ended a whisky bottle into his mouth. Since then she had watched
him, as he used to complain, 'like a cat over a bloody mousehole'.
However, he managed to enjoy quite a number of 'good times', though
they were usually rather hurried ones.
what a head I've got on me this morning,' he said.
'Call that butler again, Westfield. I've got to have another
brandy before my missus gets here. She says she's going to cut my
booze down to four pegs a day when our niece gets here. God rot
them both!' he added gloomily.
the fool, all of you, and listen to this,' said Ellis
sourly. He had a queer wounding way of speaking, hardly ever
opening his mouth without insulting somebody. He deliberately
exaggerated his Cockney accent, because of the sardonic tone it
gave to his words. 'Have you seen this notice of old Macgregor's?
A little nosegay for everyone. Maxwell, wake up and listen!'
the Field. He was a fresh-coloured blond youth of
not more than twenty-five or six--very young for the post he held.
With his heavy limbs and thick white eyelashes he reminded one of a
cart-horse colt. Ellis nipped the notice from the board with a
neat, spiteful little movement and began reading it aloud. It had
been posted by Mr Macgregor, who, besides being Deputy Commissioner,
was secretary of the Club.
to this. "It has been suggested that as there are as
yet no Oriental members of this club, and as it is now usual to
admit officials of gazetted rank, whether native or European, to
membership of most European Clubs, we should consider the question
of following this practice in Kyauktada. The matter will be open
for discussion at the next general meeting. On the one hand it may
be pointed out"--oh, well, no need to wade through the rest of it.
He can't even write a notice without an attack of literary
diarrhoea. Anyway, the point's this. He's asking us to break all
our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this Club. DEAR Dr
Veraswami, for instance. Dr Very-slimy, I call him. That WOULD be
a treat, wouldn't it? Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic
in your face over the bridge-table. Christ, to think of it! We've
got to hang together and put our foot down on this at once. What
do you say, Westfield? Flory?'
his thin shoulders philosophically. He had sat
down at the table and lighted a black, stinking Burma cheroot.
'Got to put
up with it, I suppose,' he said. 'B--s of natives are
getting into all the Clubs nowadays. Even the Pegu Club, I'm told.
Way this country's going, you know. We're about the last Club in
Burma to hold out against 'em.'
'We are; and
what's more, we're damn well going to go on holding
out. I'll die in the ditch before I'll see a nigger in here.'
Ellis had produced a stump of pencil. With the curious air of
spite that some men can put into their tiniest action, he re-pinned
the notice on the board and pencilled a tiny, neat 'B. F.' against
Mr Macgregor's signature--'There, that's what I think of his idea.
I'll tell him so when he comes down. What do YOU say, Flory?'
Flory had not
spoken all this time. Though by nature anything but
a silent man, he seldom found much to say in Club conversations.
He had sat down at the table and was reading G. K. Chesterton's
article in the London News, at the same time caressing Flo's head
with his left hand. Ellis, however, was one of those people who
constantly nag others to echo their own opinions. He repeated his
question, and Flory looked up, and their eyes met. The skin round
Ellis's nose suddenly turned so pale that it was almost grey. In
him it was a sign of anger. Without any prelude he burst into a
stream of abuse that would have been startling, if the others had
not been used to hearing something like it every morning.
'My God, I should
have thought in a case like this, when it's a
question of keeping those black, stinking swine out of the only
place where we can enjoy ourselves, you'd have the decency to back
me up. Even if that pot-bellied greasy little sod of a nigger
doctor IS your best pal. _I_ don't care if you choose to pal up
with the scum of the bazaar. If it pleases you to go to
Veraswami's house and drink whisky with all his nigger pals, that's
your look-out. Do what you like outside the Club. But, by God,
it's a different matter when you talk of bringing niggers in here.
I suppose you'd like little Veraswami for a Club member, eh?
Chipping into our conversation and pawing everyone with his sweaty
hands and breathing his filthy garlic breath in our faces. By god,
he'd go out with my boot behind him if ever I saw his black snout
inside that door. Greasy, pot-bellied little--!' etc.
This went on
for several minutes. It was curiously impressive,
because it was so completely sincere. Ellis really did hate
Orientals--hated them with a bitter, restless loathing as of
something evil or unclean. Living and working, as the assistant of
a timber firm must, in perpetual contact with the Burmese, he had
never grown used to the sight of a black face. Any hint of
friendly feeling towards an Oriental seemed to him a horrible
perversity. He was an intelligent man and an able servant of his
firm, but he was one of those Englishmen--common, unfortunately--
who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.
Flory sat nursing
Flo's head in his lap, unable to meet Ellis's
eyes. At the best of times his birthmark made it difficult for him
to look people straight in the face. And when he made ready to
speak, he could feel his voice trembling--for it had a way of
trembling when it should have been firm; his features, too,
sometimes twitched uncontrollably.
he said at last, sullenly and rather feebly. 'Steady
on. There's no need to get so excited. _I_ never suggested having
any native members in here.'
you? We all know bloody well you'd like to, though.
Why else do you go to that oily little babu's house every morning,
then? Sitting down at table with him as though he was a white man,
and drinking out of glasses his filthy black lips have slobbered
over--it makes me spew to think of it.'
'Sit down, old
chap, sit down,' Westfield said. 'Forget it. Have
a drink on it. Not worth while quarrelling. Too hot.'
'My God,' said
Ellis a little more calmly, taking a pace or two up
and down, 'my God, I don't understand you chaps. I simply don't.
Here's that old fool Macgregor wanting to bring a nigger into this
Club for no reason whatever, and you all sit down under it without
a word. Good God, what are we supposed to be doing in this
country? If we aren't going to rule, why the devil don't we clear
out? Here we are, supposed to be governing a set of damn black
swine who've been slaves since the beginning of history, and
instead of ruling them in the only way they understand, we go and
treat them as equals. And you silly b--s take it for granted.
There's Flory, makes his best pal a black babu who calls himself
a doctor because he's done two years at an Indian so-called
university. And you, Westfield, proud as Punch of your knock-
kneed, bribe-taking cowards of policemen. And there's Maxwell,
spends his time running after Eurasian tarts. Yes, you do,
Maxwell; I heard about your goings-on in Mandalay with some smelly
little bitch called Molly Pereira. I suppose you'd have gone and
married her if they hadn't transferred you up here? You all seem
to LIKE the dirty black brutes. Christ, I don't know what's come
over us all. I really don't.'
'Come on, have
another drink,' said Westfield. 'Hey, butler! Spot
of beer before the ice goes, eh? Beer, butler!'
The butler brought
some bottles of Munich beer. Ellis presently
sat down at the table with the others, and he nursed one of the
cool bottles between his small hands. His forehead was sweating.
He was sulky, but not in a rage any longer. At all times he was
spiteful and perverse, but his violent fits of rage were soon over,
and were never apologized for. Quarrels were a regular part of the
routine of Club life. Mr Lackersteen was feeling better and was
studying the illustrations in La Vie Parisienne. It was after nine
now, and the room, scented with the acrid smoke of Westfield's
cheroot, was stifling hot. Everyone's shirt stuck to his back with
the first sweat of the day. The invisible chokra who pulled the
punkah rope outside was falling asleep in the glare.
Ellis, and as the butler appeared, 'go and wake
that bloody chokra up!'
'How much ice have we got left?'
pounds, master. Will only last today, I think. I
find it very difficult to keep ice cool now.'
like that, damn you--"I find it very difficult!" Have
you swallowed a dictionary? "Please, master, can't keeping ice
cool"--that's how you ought to talk. We shall have to sack this
fellow if he gets to talk English too well. I can't stick servants
who talk English. D'you hear, butler?'
'Yes, master,' said the butler, and retired.
'God! No ice
till Monday,' Westfield said. 'You going back to the
'Yes. I ought
to be there now. I only came in because of the
'Go on tour
myself, I think. Knock up a spot of Travelling
Allowance. I can't stick my bloody office at this time of year.
Sitting there under the damned punkah, signing one chit after
another. Paper-chewing. God, how I wish the war was on again!'
'I'm going out
the day after tomorrow,' Ellis said. 'Isn't that
damned padre coming to hold his service this Sunday? I'll take
care not to be in for that, anyway. Bloody knee-drill.'
said Westfield. 'Promised to be in for it myself.
So's Macgregor. Bit hard on the poor devil of a padre, I must say.
Only gets here once in six weeks. Might as well get up a
congregation when he does come.'
'Oh, hell! I'd
snivel psalms to oblige the padre, but I can't
stick the way these damned native Christians come shoving into our
church. A pack of Madrassi servants and Karen school-teachers.
And then those two yellow-bellies, Francis and Samuel--they call
themselves Christians too. Last time the padre was here they had
the nerve to come up and sit on the front pews with the white men.
Someone ought to speak to the padre about that. What bloody fools
we were ever to let those missionaries loose in this country!
Teaching bazaar sweepers they're as good as we are. "Please, sir,
me Christian same like master." Damned cheek.'
'How about that
for a pair of legs?' said Mr Lackersteen, passing
La Vie Parisienne across. 'You know French, Flory; what's that
mean underneath? Christ, it reminds me of when I was in Paris, my
first leave, before I married. Christ, I wish I was there again!'
'Did you hear
that one about "There was a young lady of Woking"?'
Maxwell said. He was rather a silent youth, but, like other
youths, he had an affection for a good smutty rhyme. He completed
the biography of the young lady of Woking, and there was a laugh.
Westfield replied with the young lady of Ealing who had a peculiar
feeling, and Flory came in with the young curate of Horsham who
always took every precaution. There was more laughter. Even Ellis
thawed and produced several rhymes; Ellis's jokes were always
genuinely witty, and yet filthy beyond measure. Everyone cheered
up and felt more friendly in spite of the heat. They had finished
the beer and were just going to call for another drink, when shoes
creaked on the steps outside. A booming voice, which made the
floorboards tingle, was saying jocosely:
'Yes, most distinctly
humorous. I incorporated it in one of those
little articles of mine in Blackwood's, you know. I remember, too,
when I was stationed at Prome, another quite--ah--diverting
Macgregor had arrived at the Club. Mr Lackersteen
exclaimed, 'Hell! My wife's there,' and pushed his empty glass as
far away from him as it would go. Mr Macgregor and Mrs Lackersteen
entered the lounge together.
was a large, heavy man, rather past forty, with a
kindly, puggy face, wearing gold-rimmed spectacles. His bulky
shoulders, and a trick he had of thrusting his head forward,
reminded one curiously of a turtle--the Burmans, in fact, nicknamed
him 'the tortoise'. He was dressed in a clean silk suit, which
already showed patches of sweat beneath the armpits. He greeted
the others with a humorous mock-salute, and then planted himself
before the notice-board, beaming, in the attitude of a schoolmaster
twiddling a cane behind his back. The good nature in his face was
quite genuine, and yet there was such a wilful geniality about him,
such a strenuous air of being off duty and forgetting his official
rank, that no one was ever quite at ease in his presence. His
conversation was evidently modelled on that of some facetious
schoolmaster or clergyman whom he had known in early life. Any
long word, any quotation, any proverbial expression figured in his
mind as a joke, and was introduced with a bumbling noise like 'er'
or 'ah', to make it clear that there was a joke coming. Mrs
Lackersteen was a woman of about thirty-five, handsome in a
contourless, elongated way, like a fashion plate. She had a
sighing, discontented voice. The others had all stood up when she
entered, and Mrs Lackersteen sank exhaustedly into the best chair
under the punkah, fanning herself with a slender hand like that of
'Oh dear, this
heat, this heat! Mr Macgregor came and fetched me
in his car. SO kind of him. Tom, that wretch of a rickshaw-man is
pretending to be ill again. Really, I think you ought to give him
a good thrashing and bring him to his senses. It's too terrible to
have to walk about in this sun every day.'
unequal to the quarter-mile walk between her house
and the Club, had imported a rickshaw from Rangoon. Except for
bullock-carts and Mr Macgregor's car it was the only wheeled
vehicle in Kyauktada, for the whole district did not possess ten
miles of road. In the jungle, rather than leave her husband alone,
Mrs Lackersteen endured all the horrors of dripping tents,
mosquitoes and tinned food; but she made up for it by complaining
over trifles while in headquarters.
'Really I think
the laziness of these servants is getting too
shocking,' she sighed. 'Don't you agree, Mr Macgregor? We seem
to have no AUTHORITY over the natives nowadays, with all these
dreadful Reforms, and the insolence they learn from the newspapers.
In some ways they are getting almost as bad as the lower classes at
as bad as that, I trust. Still, I am afraid there is
no doubt that the democratic spirit is creeping in, even here.'
'And such a
short time ago, even just before the war, they were so
NICE and respectful! The way they salaamed when you passed them on
the road--it was really quite charming. I remember when we paid
our butler only twelve rupees a month, and really that man loved us
like a dog. And now they are demanding forty and fifty rupees, and
I find that the only way I can even KEEP a servant is to pay their
wages several months in arrears.'
'The old type
of servant is disappearing,' agreed Mr Macgregor.
'In my young days, when one's butler was disrespectful, one sent
him along to the jail with a chit saying "Please give the bearer
fifteen lashes". Ah well, eheu fugaces! Those days are gone for
ever, I am afraid.'
about right there,' said Westfield in his gloomy way.
'This country'll never be fit to live in again. British Raj is
finished if you ask me. Lost Dominion and all that. Time we
cleared out of it.'
was a murmur of agreement from everyone in the room,
even from Flory, notoriously a Bolshie in his opinions, even from
young Maxwell, who had been barely three years in the country. No
Anglo-Indian will ever deny that India is going to the dogs, or
ever has denied it--for India, like Punch, never was what it was.
Ellis had meanwhile
unpinned the offending notice from behind Mr
Macgregor's back, and he now held it out to him, saying in his sour
we've read this notice, and we all think this
idea of electing a native to the Club is absolute--' Ellis was
going to have said 'absolute balls', but he remembered Mrs
Lackersteen's presence and checked himself--'is absolutely uncalled
for. After all, this Club is a place where we come to enjoy
ourselves, and we don't want natives poking about in here. We like
to think there's still one place where we're free of them. The
others all agree with me absolutely.'
He looked round
at the others. 'Hear, hear!' said Mr Lackersteen
gruffly. He knew that his wife would guess that he had been
drinking, and he felt that a display of sound sentiment would
took the notice with a smile. He saw the 'B. F.'
pencilled against his name, and privately he thought Ellis's manner
very disrespectful, but he turned the matter off with a joke. He
took as great pains to be a good fellow at the Club as he did to
keep up his dignity during office hours. 'I gather,' he said,
'that our friend Ellis does not welcome the society of--ah--his
'No, I do not,'
said Ellis tartly. 'Nor my Mongolian brother. I
don't like niggers, to put it in one word.'
stiffened at the word 'nigger', which is discountenanced
in India. He had no prejudice against Orientals; indeed, he was
deeply fond of them. Provided they were given no freedom he thought
them the most charming people alive. It always pained him to see
them wantonly insulted.
'Is it quite
playing the game,' he said stiffly, 'to call these
people niggers--a term they very naturally resent--when they are
obviously nothing of the kind? The Burmese are Mongolians, the
Indians are Aryans or Dravidians, and all of them are quite
'Oh, rot that!'
said Ellis, who was not at all awed by Mr
Macgregor's official status. 'Call them niggers or Aryans or what
you like. What I'm saying is that we don't want to see any black
hides in this Club. If you put it to the vote you'll find we're
against it to a man--unless Flory wants his DEAR pal Veraswami,' he
repeated Mr Lackersteen. 'Count on me to blackball
the lot of 'em.'
pursed his lips whimsically. He was in an awkward
position, for the idea of electing a native member was not his own,
but had been passed on to him by the Commissioner. However, he
disliked making excuses, so he said in a more conciliatory tone:
'Shall we postpone
discussing it till the next general meeting? In
the meantime we can give it our mature consideration. And now,' he
added, moving towards the table, 'who will join me in a little--ah--
The butler was
called and the 'liquid refreshment' ordered. It was
hotter than ever now, and everyone was thirsty. Mr Lackersteen was
on the point of ordering a drink when he caught his wife's eye,
shrank up and said sulkily 'No.' He sat with his hands on his
knees, with a rather pathetic expression, watching Mrs Lackersteen
swallow a glass of lemonade with gin in it. Mr Macgregor, though
he signed the chit for drinks, drank plain lemonade. Alone of the
Europeans in Kyauktada, he kept the rule of not drinking before
'It's all very
well,' grumbled Ellis, with his forearms on the
table, fidgeting with his glass. The dispute with Mr Macgregor had
made him restless again. 'It's all very well, but I stick to what
I said. No natives in this Club! It's by constantly giving way
over small things like that that we've ruined the Empire. The
country's only rotten with sedition because we've been too soft
with them. The only possible policy is to treat 'em like the dirt
they are. This is a critical moment, and we want every bit of
prestige we can get. We've got to hang together and say, "WE ARE
THE MASTERS, and you beggars--"' Ellis pressed his small thumb down
as though flattening a grub--'"you beggars keep your place!"'
chap,' said Westfield. 'Quite hopeless. What can
you do with all this red tape tying your hands? Beggars of natives
know the law better than we do. Insult you to your face and then
run you in the moment you hit 'em. Can't do anything unless you
put your foot down firmly. And how can you, if they haven't the
guts to show fight?'
'Our burra sahib
at Mandalay always said,' put in Mrs Lackersteen,
'that in the end we shall simply LEAVE India. Young men will not
come out here any longer to work all their lives for insults and
ingratitude. We shall just GO. When the natives come to us
begging us to stay, we shall say, "No, you have had your chance,
you wouldn't take it. Very well, we shall leave you to govern
yourselves." And then, what a lesson that will teach them!'
'It's all this
law and order that's done for us,' said Westfield
gloomily. The ruin of the Indian Empire through too much legality
was a recurrent theme with Westfield. According to him, nothing
save a full-sized rebellion, and the consequent reign of martial
law, could save the Empire from decay. 'All this paper-chewing and
chit-passing. Office babus are the real rulers of this country
now. Our number's up. Best thing we can do is to shut up shop and
let 'em stew in their own juice.'
'I don't agree,
I simply don't agree,' Ellis said. 'We could put
things right in a month if we chose. It only needs a pennyworth of
pluck. Look at Amritsar. Look how they caved in after that. Dyer
knew the stuff to give them. Poor old Dyer! That was a dirty job.
Those cowards in England have got something to answer for.'
There was a
kind of sigh from the others, the same sigh that a
gathering of Roman Catholics will give at the mention of Bloody
Mary. Even Mr Macgregor, who detested bloodshed and martial law,
shook his head at the name of Dyer.
'Ah, poor man!
Sacrificed to the Paget M.P.s. Well, perhaps they
will discover their mistake when it is too late.'
'My old governor
used to tell a story about that,' said Westfield.
'There was an old havildar in a native regiment--someone asked him
what'd happen if the British left India. The old chap said--'
back his chair and stood up. It must not, it could
not--no, it simply should not go on any longer! He must get out of
this room quickly, before something happened inside his head and he
began to smash the furniture and throw bottles at the pictures.
Dull boozing witless porkers! Was it possible that they could go
on week after week, year after year, repeating word for word the
same evil-minded drivel, like a parody of a fifth-rate story in
Blackwood's? Would none of them EVER think of anything new to say?
Oh, what a place, what people! What a civilization is this of
ours--this godless civilization founded on whisky, Blackwood's and
the 'Bonzo' pictures! God have mercy on us, for all of us are part
Flory did not
say any of this, and he was at some pains not to show
it in his face. He was standing by his chair, a little sidelong to
the others, with the half-smile of a man who is never sure of his
I shall have to be off,' he said. 'I've got some
things to see to before breakfast, unfortunately.'
'Stay and have
another spot, old man,' said Westfield. 'Morning's
young. Have a gin. Give you an appetite.'
I must be going. Come on, Flo. Good-bye, Mrs
Lackersteen. Good-bye, everybody.'
Washington, the niggers' pal,' said Ellis as Flory
disappeared. Ellis could always be counted on to say something
disagreeable about anyone who had just left the room. 'Gone to see
Very-slimy, I suppose. Or else sloped off to avoid paying a round
'Oh, he's not
a bad chap,' Westfield said. 'Says some Bolshie
things sometimes. Don't suppose he means half of them.'
'Oh, a very
good fellow, of course,' said Mr Macgregor. Every
European in India is ex-officio, or rather ex-colore, a good
fellow, until he has done something quite outrageous. It is an
'He's a bit
TOO Bolshie for my taste. I can't bear a fellow who
pals up with the natives. I shouldn't wonder if he's got a lick of
the tar-brush himself. It might explain that black mark on his
face. Piebald. And he looks like a yellow-belly, with that black
hair, and skin the colour of a lemon.'
There was some
desultory scandal about Flory, but not much, because
Mr Macgregor did not like scandal. The Europeans stayed in the
Club long enough for one more round of drinks. Mr Macgregor told
his anecdote about Prome, which could be produced in almost any
context. And then the conversation veered back to the old, never-
palling subject--the insolence of the natives, the supineness of
the Government, the dear dead days when the British Raj WAS the
British Raj and please give the bearer fifteen lashes. This topic
was never let alone for long, partly because of Ellis's obsession.
Besides, you could forgive the Europeans a great deal of their
bitterness. Living and working among Orientals would try the
temper of a saint. And all of them, the officials particularly,
knew what it was to be baited and insulted. Almost every day, when
Westfield or Mr Macgregor or even Maxwell went down the street, the
High School boys, with their young, yellow faces--faces smooth as
gold coins, full of that maddening contempt that sits so naturally
on the Mongolian face--sneered at them as they went past, sometimes
hooted after them with hyena-like laughter. The life of the Anglo-
Indian officials is not all jam. In comfortless camps, in
sweltering offices, in gloomy dakbungalows smelling of dust and
earth-oil, they earn, perhaps, the right to be a little disagreeable.
It was getting
on for ten now, and hot beyond bearing. Flat, clear
drops of sweat gathered on everyone's face, and on the men's bare
forearms. A damp patch was growing larger and larger in the back
of Mr Macgregor's silk coat. The glare outside seemed to soak
somehow through the green-chicked windows, making one's eyes ache
and filling one's head with stuffiness. Everyone thought with
malaise of his stodgy breakfast, and of the long, deadly hours that
were coming. Mr Macgregor stood up with a sigh and adjusted his
spectacles, which had slipped down his sweating nose.
'Alas that such
a festive gathering should end,' he said. 'I must
get home to breakfast. The cares of Empire. Is anybody coming my
way? My man is waiting with the car.'
'Oh, thank you,'
said Mrs Lackersteen; 'if you'd take Tom and me.
What a relief not to have to walk in this heat!'
The others stood
up. Westfield stretched his arms and yawned
through his nose. 'Better get a move on, I suppose. Go to sleep
if I sit here any longer. Think of stewing in that office all day!
Baskets of papers. Oh Lord!'
tennis this evening, everyone,' said Ellis.
'Maxwell, you lazy devil, don't you skulk out of it again. Down
here with your racquet at four-thirty sharp.'
'Apres vous, madame,' said Mr Macgregor gallantly, at the door.
'Lead on, Macduff,' said Westfield.
They went out
into the glaring white sunlight. The heat rolled
from the earth like the breath of an oven. The flowers, oppressive
to the eyes, blazed with not a petal stirring, in a debauch of sun.
The glare sent a weariness through one's bones. There was
something horrible in it--horrible to think of that blue, blinding
sky, stretching on and on over Burma and India, over Siam,
Cambodia, China, cloudless and interminable. The plates of Mr
Macgregor's waiting car were too hot to touch. The evil time of
day was beginning, the time, as the Burmese say, 'when feet are
silent'. Hardly a living creature stirred, except men, and the
black columns of ants, stimulated by the heat, which marched
ribbon-like across the path, and the tail-less vultures which
soared on the currents of the air.
Flory turned to the left outside the Club gate and started down the
bazaar road, under the shade of the peepul trees. A hundred yards
away there was a swirl of music, where a squad of Military
Policemen, lank Indians in greenish khaki, were marching back to
their lines with a Gurkha boy playing the bagpipes ahead of them.
Flory was going to see Dr Veraswami. The doctor's house was a long
bungalow of earth-oiled wood, standing on piles, with a large
unkempt garden which adjoined that of the Club. The back of the
house was towards the road, for it faced the hospital, which lay
between it and the river.
As Flory entered
the compound there was a frightened squawk of
women and a scurrying within the house. Evidently he had narrowly
missed seeing the doctor's wife. He went round to the front of the
house and called up to the veranda:
'Doctor! Are you busy? May I come up?'
a little black and white figure, popped from within the
house like a jack-in-the-box. He hurried to the veranda rail,
'If you may
come up! Of course, of course, come up this instant!
Ah, Mr Flory, how very delightful to see you! Come up, come up.
What drink will you have? I have whisky, beer, vermouth and other
European liquors. Ah, my dear friend, how I have been pining for
some cultured conversation!'
The doctor was
a small, black, plump man with fuzzy hair and round,
credulous eyes. He wore steel-rimmed spectacles, and he was
dressed in a badly fitting white drill suit, with trousers bagging
concertina-like over clumsy black boots. His voice was eager and
bubbling, with a hissing of the s's. As Flory came up the steps
the doctor popped back to the end of the veranda and rummaged in a
big tin ice-chest, rapidly pulling out bottles of all descriptions.
The veranda was wide and dark, with low eaves from which baskets of
fern hung, making it seem like a cave behind a waterfall of
sunlight. It was furnished with long, cane-bottomed chairs made in
the jail, and at one end there was a book-case containing a rather
unappetizing little library, mainly books of essays, of the
Emerson-Carlyle-Stevenson type. The doctor, a great reader, liked
his books to have what he called a 'moral meaning'.
said Flory--the doctor had meanwhile thrust him
into a long chair, pulled out the leg-rests so that he could lie
down, and put cigarettes and beer within reach. 'Well, doctor, and
how are things? How's the British Empire? Sick of the palsy as
'Aha, Mr Flory,
she iss very low, very low! Grave complications
setting in. Septicaemia, peritonitis and paralysis of the ganglia.
We shall have to call in the specialists, I fear. Aha!'
It was a joke
between the two men to pretend that the British
Empire was an aged female patient of the doctor's. The doctor had
enjoyed this joke for two years without growing tired of it.
said Flory, supine in the long chair, 'what a joy to
be here after that bloody Club. When I come to your house I feel
like a Nonconformist minister dodging up to town and going home
with a tart. Such a glorious holiday from THEM'--he motioned with
one heel in the direction of the Club--'from my beloved fellow
Empire-builders. British prestige, the white man's burden, the
pukka sahib sans peur et sans reproche--you know. Such a relief to
be out of the stink of it for a little while.'
my friend, now come, come, please! That iss
outrageous. You must not say such things of honourable English
'You don't have
to listen to the honourable gentlemen talking,
doctor. I stood it as long as I could this morning. Ellis with
his "dirty nigger", Westfield with his jokes, Macgregor with his
Latin tags and please give the bearer fifteen lashes. But when
they got on to that story about the old havildar--you know, the
dear old havildar who said that if the British left India there
wouldn't be a rupee or a virgin between--you know; well, I couldn't
stand it any longer. It's time that old havildar was put on the
retired list. He's been saying the same thing ever since the
Jubilee in 'eighty-seven.'
The doctor grew
agitated, as he always did when Flory criticized
the Club members. He was standing with his plump white-clad behind
balanced against the veranda rail, and sometimes gesticulating.
When searching for a word he would nip his black thumb and
forefinger together, as though to capture an idea floating in the
truly, Mr Flory, you must not speak so! Why iss it
that always you are abusing the pukka sahibs, ass you call them?
They are the salt of the earth. Consider the great things they
have done--consider the great administrators who have made British
India what it iss. Consider Clive, Warren Hastings, Dalhousie,
Curzon. They were such men--I quote your immortal Shakespeare--
ass, take them for all in all, we shall not look upon their like
'Well, do you want to look upon their like again? I don't.'
how noble a type iss the English gentleman! Their
glorious loyalty to one another! The public school spirit! Even
those of them whose manner iss unfortunate--some Englishmen are
arrogant, I concede--have the great, sterling qualities that we
Orientals lack. Beneath their rough exterior, their hearts are of
'Of gilt, shall
we say? There's a kind of spurious good-fellowship
between the English and this country. It's a tradition to booze
together and swap meals and pretend to be friends, though we all
hate each other like poison. Hanging together, we call it. It's
a political necessity. Of course drink is what keeps the machine
going. We should all go mad and kill one another in a week if it
weren't for that. There's a subject for one of your uplift
essayists, doctor. Booze as the cement of empire.'
The doctor shook
his head. 'Really, Mr Flory, I know not what it
iss that hass made you so cynical. It iss so most unsuitable!
You--an English gentleman of high gifts and character--to be
uttering seditious opinions that are worthy of the Burmese
Flory said. 'I'M not seditious. I don't want the
Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I'm here to
make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white
man's burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It's so boring. Even
those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we
weren't all of us living a lie the whole time.'
'But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?'
'Why, of course,
the lie that we're here to uplift our poor black
brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it's a natural enough
lie. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can't imagine.
There's an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that
torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It's
at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-
Indians could be almost bearable if we'd only admit that we're
thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.'
very pleased, nipped his thumb and forefinger together.
'The weakness of your argument, my dear friend,' he said, beaming
at his own irony, 'the weakness appears to be, that you are NOT
'Now, my dear doctor--'
Flory sat up
in the long chair, partly because his prickly heat
had just stabbed him in the back like a thousand needles, partly
because his favourite argument with the doctor was about to begin.
This argument, vaguely political in nature, took place as often as
the two men met. It was a topsy-turvy affair, for the Englishman
was bitterly anti-English and the Indian fanatically loyal. Dr
Veraswami had a passionate admiration for the English, which a
thousand snubs from Englishmen had not shaken. He would maintain
with positive eagerness that he, as an Indian, belonged to an
inferior and degenerate race. His faith in British justice was so
great that even when, at the jail, he had to superintend a flogging
or a hanging, and would come home with his black face faded grey
and dose himself with whisky, his zeal did not falter. Flory's
seditious opinions shocked him, but they also gave him a certain
shuddering pleasure, such as a pious believer will take in hearing
the Lord's Prayer repeated backwards.
'My dear doctor,'
said Flory, 'how can you make out that we are in
this country for any purpose except to steal? It's so simple. The
official holds the Burman down while the businessman goes through
his pockets. Do you suppose my firm, for instance, could get its
timber contracts if the country weren't in the hands of the
British? Or the other timber firms, or the oil companies, or the
miners and planters and traders? How could the Rice Ring go on
skinning the unfortunate peasant if it hadn't the Government behind
it? The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade
monopolies to the English--or rather to gangs of Jews and
it iss pathetic to me to hear you talk so. It iss
truly pathetic. You say you are here to trade? Of course you are.
Could the Burmese trade for themselves? Can they make machinery,
ships, railways, roads? They are helpless without you. What would
happen to the Burmese forests if the English were not here? They
would be sold immediately to the Japanese, who would gut them and
ruin them. Instead of which, in your hands, actually they are
improved. And while your businessmen develop the resources of our
country, your officials are civilizing us, elevating us to their
level, from pure public spirit. It is a magnificent record of
'Bosh, my dear
doctor. We teach the young men to drink whisky and
play football, I admit, but precious little else. Look at our
schools--factories for cheap clerks. We've never taught a single
useful manual trade to the Indians. We daren't; frightened of the
competition in industry. We've even crushed various industries.
Where are the Indian muslins now? Back in the forties or
thereabouts they were building sea-going ships in India, and
manning them as well. Now you couldn't build a seaworthy fishing
boat there. In the eighteenth century the Indians cast guns that
were at any rate up to the European standard. Now, after we've
been in India a hundred and fifty years, you can't make so much as
a brass cartridge-case in the whole continent. The only Eastern
races that have developed at all quickly are the independent ones.
I won't instance Japan, but take the case of Siam--'
The doctor waved
his hand excitedly. He always interrupted the
argument at this point (for as a rule it followed the same course,
almost word for word), finding that the case of Siam hampered him.
my friend, you are forgetting the Oriental character.
How iss it possible to have developed us, with our apathy and
superstition? At least you have brought to us law and order.
The unswerving British Justice and the Pax Britannica.'
doctor, Pox Britannica is its proper name. And in
any case, whom is it pax for? The money-lender and the lawyer. Of
course we keep the peace in India, in our own interest, but what
does all this law and order business boil down to? More banks and
more prisons--that's all it means.'
misrepresentations!' cried the doctor. 'Are not
prissons necessary? And have you brought us nothing but prissons?
Consider Burma in the days of Thibaw, with dirt and torture and
ignorance, and then look around you. Look merely out of this
veranda--look at that hospital, and over to the right at that
school and that police station. Look at the whole uprush of modern
'Of course I
don't deny,' Flory said, 'that we modernize this
country in certain ways. We can't help doing so. In fact, before
we've finished we'll have wrecked the whole Burmese national
culture. But we're not civilizing them, we're only rubbing our
dirt on to them. Where's it going to lead, this uprush of modern
progress, as you call it? Just to our own dear old swinery of
gramophones and billycock hats. Sometimes I think that in two
hundred years all this--' he waved a foot towards the horizon--'all
this will be gone--forests, villages, monasteries, pagodas all
vanished. And instead, pink villas fifty yards apart; all over
those hills, as far as you can see, villa after villa, with all the
gramophones playing the same tune. And all the forests shaved
flat--chewed into wood-pulp for the News of the World, or sawn up
into gramophone cases. But the trees avenge themselves, as the old
chap says in The Wild Duck. You've read Ibsen, of course?'
'Ah, no, Mr
Flory, alas! That mighty master-mind, your inspired
Bernard Shaw hass called him. It iss a pleasure to come. But, my
friend, what you do not see iss that your civilization at its very
worst iss for us an advance. Gramophones, billycock hats, the News
of the World--all iss better than the horrible sloth of the
Oriental. I see the British, even the least inspired of them,
ass--ass--' the doctor searched for a phrase, and found one that
probably came from Stevenson--'ass torchbearers upon the path of
'I don't. I
see them as a kind of up-to-date, hygienic, self-
satisfied louse. Creeping round the world building prisons. They
build a prison and call it progress,' he added rather regretfully--
for the doctor would not recognize the allusion.
positively you are harping upon the subject of
prissons! Consider that there are also other achievements of your
countrymen. They construct roads, they irrigate deserts, they
conquer famines, they build schools, they set up hospitals, they
combat plague, cholera, leprosy, smallpox, venereal disease--'
'Having brought it themselves,' put in Flory.
'No, sir!' returned
the doctor, eager to claim this distinction for
his own countrymen. 'No, sir, it wass the Indians who introduced
venereal disease into this country. The Indians introduce
diseases, and the English cure them. THERE iss the answer to all
your pessimism and seditiousness.'
we shall never agree. The fact is that you like all
this modern progress business, whereas I'd rather see things a
little bit septic. Burma in the days of Thibaw would have suited
me better, I think. And as I said before, if we are a civilizing
influence, it's only to grab on a larger scale. We should chuck it
quickly enough if it didn't pay.'
you do not think that. If truly you disapprove of the
British Empire, you would not be talking of it privately here. You
would be proclaiming from the house-tops. I know your character,
Mr Flory, better than you know it yourself.'
I don't go in for proclaiming from the housetops.
I haven't the guts. I "counsel ignoble ease", like old Belial in
Paradise Lost. It's safer. You've got to be a pukka sahib or die,
in this country. In fifteen years I've never talked honestly to
anyone except you. My talks here are a safety-valve; a little
Black Mass on the sly, if you understand me.'
At this moment
there was a desolate wailing noise outside. Old
Mattu, the Hindu durwan who looked after the European church, was
standing in the sunlight below the veranda. He was an old fever-
stricken creature, more like a grasshopper than a human being, and
dressed in a few square inches of dingy rag. He lived near the
church in a hut made of flattened kerosene tins, from which he
would sometimes hurry forth at the appearance of a European, to
salaam deeply and wail something about his 'talab', which was
eighteen rupees a month. Looking piteously up at the veranda, he
massaged the earth-coloured skin of his belly with one hand, and
with the other made the motion of putting food into his mouth. The
doctor felt in his pocket and dropped a four-anna piece over the
veranda rail. He was notorious for his soft-heartedness, and all
the beggars in Kyauktada made him their target.
the degeneracy of the East,' said the doctor,
pointing to Mattu, who was doubling himself up like a caterpillar
and uttering grateful whines. 'Look at the wretchedness of hiss
limbs. The calves of hiss legs are not so thick ass an
Englishman's wrists. Look at hiss abjectness and servility. Look
at hiss ignorance--such ignorance ass iss not known in Europe
outside a home for mental defectives. Once I asked Mattu to tell
me hiss age. "Sahib," he said, "I believe that I am ten years
old." How can you pretend, Mr Flory, that you are not the natural
superior of such creatures?'
'Poor old Mattu,
the uprush of modern progress seems to have missed
him somehow,' Flory said, throwing another four-anna piece over the
rail. 'Go on, Mattu, spend that on booze. Be as degenerate as you
can. It all postpones Utopia.'
'Aha, Mr Flory,
sometimes I think that all you say iss but to--what
iss the expression?--pull my leg. The English sense of humour. We
Orientals have no humour, ass iss well known.'
It's been the ruin of us, our bloody sense of
humour.' He yawned with his hands behind his head. Mattu had
shambled away after further grateful noises. 'I suppose I ought to
be going before this cursed sun gets too high. The heat's going to
be devilish this year, I feel it in my bones. Well, doctor, we've
been arguing so much that I haven't asked for your news. I only
got in from the jungle yesterday. I ought to go back the day after
tomorrow--don't know whether I shall. Has anything been happening
in Kyauktada? Any scandals?'
The doctor looked
suddenly serious. He had taken off his spectacles,
and his face, with dark liquid eyes, recalled that of a black
retriever dog. He looked away, and spoke in a slightly more
hesitant tone than before.
'That fact iss,
my friend, there iss a most unpleasant business
afoot. You will perhaps laugh--it sounds nothing--but I am in
serious trouble. Or rather, I am in danger of trouble. It iss an
underground business. You Europeans will never hear of it
directly. In this place'--he waved a hand towards the bazaar--
'there iss perpetual conspiracies and plottings of which you do not
hear. But to us they mean much.'
'What's been happening, then?'
'It iss this.
An intrigue iss brewing against me. A most serious
intrigue which iss intended to blacken my character and ruin my
official career. Ass an Englishman you will not understand these
things. I have incurred the enmity of a man you probably do not
know, U Po Kyin, the Sub-divisional Magistrate. He iss a most
dangerous man. The damage that he can do to me iss incalculable.'
'U Po Kyin? Which one is that?'
'The great fat
man with many teeth. Hiss house iss down the road
there, a hundred yards away.'
'Oh, that fat scoundrel? I know him well.'
'No, no, my
friend, no, no!' exclaimed the doctor quite eagerly;
'it cannot be that you know him. Only an Oriental could know him.
You, an English gentleman, cannot sink your mind to the depth of
such ass U Po Kyin. He iss more than a scoundrel, he iss--what
shall I say? Words fail me. He recalls to me a crocodile in human
shape. He hass the cunning of the crocodile, its cruelty, its
bestiality. If you knew the record of that man! The outrages he
hass committed! The extortions, the briberies! The girls he hass
ruined, raping them before the very eyes of their mothers! Ah, an
English gentleman cannot imagine such a character. And thiss iss
the man who hass taken hiss oath to ruin me.'
a good deal about U Po Kyin from various sources,'
Flory said. 'He seems a fair sample of a Burmese magistrate.
A Burman told me that during the war U Po Kyin was at work
recruiting, and he raised a battalion from his own illegitimate
sons. Is that true?'
'It could hardly
be so,' said the doctor, 'for they would not have
been old enough. But of hiss villainy there iss no doubt. And now
he iss determined upon ruining me. In the first place he hates me
because I know too much about him; and besides, he iss the enemy of
any reasonably honest man. He will proceed--such iss the practice
of such men--by calumny. He will spread reports about me--reports
of the most appalling and untrue descriptions. Already he iss
'But would anyone
believe a fellow like that against you? He's
only a lowdown magistrate. You're a high official.'
'Ah, Mr Flory,
you do not understand Oriental cunning. U Po Kyin
hass ruined higher officials than I. He will know ways to make
himself believed. And therefore--ah, it iss a difficult business!'
The doctor took
a step or two up and down the veranda, polishing
his glasses with his handkerchief. It was clear that there was
something more which delicacy prevented him from saying. For a
moment his manner was so troubled that Flory would have liked to
ask whether he could not help in some way, but he did not, for he
knew the uselessness of interfering in Oriental quarrels. No
European ever gets to the bottom of these quarrels; there is always
something impervious to the European mind, a conspiracy behind the
conspiracy, a plot within the plot. Besides, to keep out of
'native' quarrels is one of the Ten Precepts of the pukka sahib.
He said doubtfully:
'What is a difficult business?'
'It iss, if
only--ah, my friend, you will laugh at me, I fear. But
it iss this: if only I were a member of your European Club! If
only! How different would my position be!'
'The Club? Why? How would that help you?'
in these matters prestige iss everything. It iss not
that U Po Kyin will attack me openly; he would never dare; it iss
that he will libel me and backbite me. And whether he iss believed
or not depends entirely upon my standing with the Europeans. It
iss so that things happen in India. If our prestige iss good, we
rise; if bad, we fall. A nod and a wink will accomplish more than
a thousand official reports. And you do not know what prestige it
gives to an Indian to be a member of the European Club. In the
Club, practically he ISS a European. No calumny can touch him.
A Club member iss sacrosanct.'
away over the veranda rail. He had got up as though
to go. It always made him ashamed and uncomfortable when it had to
be admitted between them that the doctor, because of his black
skin, could not be received in the Club. It is a disagreeable
thing when one's close friend is not one's social equal; but it is
a thing native to the very air of India.
elect you at the next general meeting,' he said. 'I
don't say they will, but it's not impossible.'
'I trust, Mr
Flory, that you do not think I am asking you to
propose me for the Club? Heaven forbid! I know that that iss
impossible for you. Simply I wass remarking that if I were a
member of the Club, I should be forthwith invulnerable--'
his Terai hat loosely on his head and stirred Flo up
with his stick. She was asleep under the chair. Flory felt very
uncomfortable. He knew that in all probability, if he had the
courage to face a few rows with Ellis, he could secure Dr
Veraswami's election to the Club. And the doctor, after all, was
his friend, indeed, almost the sole friend he had in Burma. They
had talked and argued together a hundred times, the doctor had
dined at his house, he had even proposed to introduce Flory to his
wife--but she, a pious Hindu, had refused with horror. They had
made shooting trips together--the doctor, equipped with bandoliers
and hunting knives, panting up hillsides slippery with bamboo
leaves and blazing his gun at nothing. In common decency it was
his duty to support the doctor. But he knew also that the doctor
would never ask for any support, and that there would be an ugly
row before an Oriental was got into the Club. No, he could not
face that row! It was not worth it. He said:
'To tell you
the truth, there's been talk about this already. They
were discussing it this morning, and that little beast Ellis was
preaching his usual "dirty nigger" sermon. Macgregor has suggested
electing one native member. He's had orders to do so, I imagine.'
'Yes, I heard
that. We hear all these things. It wass that that
put the idea into my head.'
'It's to come
up at the general meeting in June. I don't know
what'll happen--it depends on Macgregor, I think. I'll give you my
vote, but I can't do more than that. I'm sorry, but I simply
can't. You don't know the row there'll be. Very likely they will
elect you, but they'll do it as an unpleasant duty, under protest.
They've made a perfect fetish of keeping this Club all-white, as
they call it.'
of course, my friend! I understand perfectly. Heaven
forbid that you should get into trouble with your European friends
on my behalf. Please, please, never to embroil yourself! The mere
fact that you are known to be my friend benefits me more than you
can imagine. Prestige, Mr Flory, iss like a barometer. Every time
you are seen to enter my house the mercury rises half a degree.'
'Well, we must
try and keep it at "Set Fair". That's about all I
can do for you, I'm afraid.'
'Even that iss
much, my friend. And for that, there iss another
thing of which I would warn you, though you will laugh, I fear. It
iss that you yourself should beware of U Po Kyin. Beware of the
crocodile! For sure he will strike at you when he knows that you
are befriending me.'
doctor, I'll beware of the crocodile. I don't fancy he
can do me much harm, though.'
'At least he
will try. I know him. It will be hiss policy to
detach my friends from me. Possibly he would even dare to spread
hiss libels about you also.'
'About me? Good
gracious, no one would believe anything against
ME. Civis Romanus sum. I'm an Englishman--quite above suspicion.'
beware of hiss calumnies, my friend. Do not
underrate him. He will know how to strike at you. He iss a
crocodile. And like the crocodile'--the doctor nipped his thumb
and finger impressively; his images became mixed sometimes--'like
the crocodile, he strikes always at the weakest spot!'
'Do crocodiles always strike at the weakest spot, doctor?'
Both men laughed.
They were intimate enough to laugh over the
doctor's queer English occasionally. Perhaps, at the bottom of his
heart, the doctor was a little disappointed that Flory had not
promised to propose him for the Club, but he would have perished
rather than say so. And Flory was glad to drop the subject, an
uncomfortable one which he wished had never been raised.
'Well, I really
must be going, doctor. Good-bye in case I don't
see you again. I hope it'll be all right at the general meeting.
Macgregor's not a bad old stick. I dare say he'll insist on their
'Let us hope
so, my friend. With that I can defy a hundred U Po
Kyins. A thousand! Good-bye, my friend, good-bye.'
Then Flory settled
his Terai hat on his head and went home across
the glaring maidan, to his breakfast, for which the long morning of
drinking, smoking and talking had left him no appetite.
Flory lay asleep, naked except for black Shan trousers, upon his
sweat-damp bed. He had been idling all day. He spent approximately
three weeks of every month in camp, coming into Kyauktada for a few
days at a time, chiefly in order to idle, for he had very little
clerical work to do.
was a large square room with white plaster walls, open
doorways and no ceiling, but only rafters in which sparrows nested.
There was no furniture except the big four-poster bed, with its
furled mosquito net like a canopy, and a wicker table and chair and
a small mirror; also some rough bookshelves, containing several
hundred books, all mildewed by many rainy seasons and riddled by
silver fish. A tuktoo clung to the wall, flat and motionless like
a heraldic dragon. Beyond the veranda eaves the light rained down
like glistening white oil. Some doves in a bamboo thicket kept up
a dull droning noise, curiously appropriate to the heat--a sleepy
sound, but with the sleepiness of chloroform rather than a lullaby.
Down at Mr Macgregor's
bungalow, two hundred yards away, a durwan,
like a living clock, hammered four strokes on a section of iron
rail. Ko S'la, Flory's servant, awakened by the sound, went into
the cookhouse, blew up the embers of the woodfire and boiled the
kettle for tea. Then he put on his pink gaungbaung and muslin
ingyi and brought the tea-tray to his master's bedside.
Ko S'la (his
real name was Maung San Hla; Ko S'la was an
abbreviation) was a short, square-shouldered, rustic-looking Burman
with a very dark skin and a harassed expression. He wore a black
moustache which curved downwards round his mouth, but like most
Burmans he was quite beardless. He had been Flory's servant since
his first day in Burma. The two men were within a month of one
another's age. They had been boys together, had tramped side by
side after snipe and duck, sat together in machans waiting for
tigers that never came, shared the discomforts of a thousand camps
and marches; and Ko S'la had pimped for Flory and borrowed money
for him from the Chinese money-lenders, carried him to bed when he
was drunk, tended him through bouts of fever. In Ko S'la's eyes
Flory, because a bachelor, was a boy still; whereas Ko S'la had
married, begotten five children, married again and become one of
the obscure martyrs of bigamy. Like all bachelors' servants, Ko
S'la was lazy and dirty, and yet he was devoted to Flory. He would
never let anyone else serve Flory at table, or carry his gun or
hold his pony's head while he mounted. On the march, if they came
to a stream, he would carry Flory across on his back. He was
inclined to pity Flory, partly because he thought him childish and
easily deceived, and partly because of the birthmark, which he
considered a dreadful thing.
Ko S'la put
the tea-tray down on the table very quietly, and then
went round to the end of the bed and tickled Flory's toes. He knew
by experience that this was the only way of waking Flory without
putting him in a bad temper. Flory rolled over, swore, and pressed
his forehead into the pillow.
has struck, most holy god,' Ko S'la said. 'I have
brought two teacups, because THE WOMAN said that she was coming.'
THE WOMAN was
Ma Hla May, Flory's mistress. Ko S'la always called
her THE WOMAN, to show his disapproval--not that he disapproved of
Flory for keeping a mistress, but he was jealous of Ma Hla May's
influence in the house.
'Will the holy one play tinnis this evening?' Ko S'la asked.
'No, it's too
hot,' said Flory in English. 'I don't want anything
to eat. Take this muck away and bring some whisky.'
Ko S'la understood
English very well, though he could not speak it.
He brought a bottle of whisky, and also Flory's tennis racquet,
which he laid in a meaning manner against the wall opposite the
bed. Tennis, according to his notions, was a mysterious ritual
incumbent on all Englishmen, and he did not like to see his master
idling in the evenings.
away in disgust the toast and butter that Ko S'la had
brought, but he mixed some whisky in a cup of tea and felt better
after drinking it. He had slept since noon, and his head and all
his bones ached, and there was a taste like burnt paper in his
mouth. It was years since he had enjoyed a meal. All European
food in Burma is more or less disgusting--the bread is spongy stuff
leavened with palm-toddy and tasting like a penny bun gone wrong,
the butter comes out of a tin, and so does the milk, unless it is
the grey watery catlap of the dudh-wallah. As Ko S'la left the
room there was a scraping of sandals outside, and a Burmese girl's
high-pitched voice said, 'Is my master awake?'
'Come in,' said Flory rather bad temperedly.
Ma Hla May came
in, kicking off red-lacquered sandals in the
doorway. She was allowed to come to tea, as a special privilege,
but not to other meals, nor to wear her sandals in her master's
Ma Hla May was
a woman of twenty-two or -three, and perhaps five
feet tall. She was dressed in a longyi of pale blue embroidered
Chinese satin, and a starched white muslin ingyi on which several
gold lockets hung. Her hair was coiled in a tight black cylinder
like ebony, and decorated with jasmine flowers. Her tiny,
straight, slender body was a contourless as a bas-relief carved
upon a tree. She was like a doll, with her oval, still face the
colour of new copper, and her narrow eyes; an outlandish doll and
yet a grotesquely beautiful one. A scent of sandalwood and coco-
nut oil came into the room with her.
Ma Hla May came
across to the bed, sat down on the edge and put her
arms rather abruptly round Flory. She smelled at his cheek with
her flat nose, in the Burmese fashion.
'Why did my master not send for me this afternoon?' she said.
'I was sleeping. It is too hot for that kind of thing.'
'So you would
rather sleep alone than with Ma Hla May? How ugly
you must think me, then! Am I ugly, master?'
'Go away,' he
said, pushing her back. 'I don't want you at this
time of day.'
'At least touch
me with your lips, then. (There is no Burmese word
for to kiss.) All white men do that to their women.'
'There you are,
then. Now leave me alone. Fetch some cigarettes
and give me one.'
'Why is it that
nowadays you never want to make love to me? Ah,
two years ago it was so different! You loved me in those days.
You gave me presents of gold bangles and silk longyis from
Mandalay. And now look'--Ma Hla May held out one tiny muslin-clad
arm--'not a single bangle. Last month I had thirty, and now all of
them are pawned. How can I go to the bazaar without my bangles,
and wearing the same longyi over and over again? I am ashamed
before the other women.'
'Is it my fault if you pawn your bangles?'
'Two years ago
you would have redeemed them for me. Ah, you do not
love Ma Hla May any longer!'
She put her
arms round him again and kissed him, a European habit
which he had taught her. A mingled scent of sandalwood, garlic,
coco-nut oil and the jasmine in her hair floated from her. It was
a scent that always made his teeth tingle. Rather abstractedly he
pressed her head back upon the pillow and looked down at her queer,
youthful face, with its high cheekbones, stretched eyelids and
short, shapely lips. She had rather nice teeth, like the teeth of
a kitten. He had bought her from her parents two years ago, for
three hundred rupees. He began to stroke her brown throat, rising
like a smooth, slender stalk from the collarless ingyi.
'You only like
me because I am a white man and have money,' he
'Master, I love
you, I love you more than anything in the world.
Why do you say that? Have I not always been faithful to you?'
'You have a Burmese lover.'
'Ugh!' Ma Hla
May affected to shudder at the thought. 'To think
of their horrible brown hands, touching me! I should die if a
Burman touched me!'
He put his hand
on her breast. Privately, Ma Hla May did not like
this, for it reminded her that her breasts existed--the ideal of a
Burmese woman being to have no breasts. She lay and let him do as
he wished with her, quite passive yet pleased and faintly smiling,
like a cat which allows one to stroke it. Flory's embraces meant
nothing to her (Ba Pe, Ko S'la's younger brother, was secretly her
lover), yet she was bitterly hurt when he neglected them.
Sometimes she had even put love-philtres in his food. It was the
idle concubine's life that she loved, and the visits to her village
dressed in all her finery, when she could boast of her position as
a 'bo-kadaw'--a white man's wife; for she had persuaded everyone,
herself included, that she was Flory's legal wife.
When Flory had
done with her he turned away, jaded and ashamed, and
lay silent with his left hand covering his birthmark. He always
remembered the birthmark when he had done something to be ashamed
of. He buried his face disgustedly in the pillow, which was damp
and smelt of coco-nut oil. It was horribly hot, and the doves
outside were still droning. Ma Hla May, naked, reclined beside
Flory, fanning him gently with a wicker fan she had taken from the
got up and dressed herself, and lighted a cigarette.
Then, coming back to the bed, she sat down and began stroking
Flory's bare shoulder. The whiteness of his skin had a fascination
for her, because of its strangeness and the sense of power it gave
her. But Flory twitched his shoulder to shake her hand away. At
these times she was nauseating and dreadful to him. His sole wish
was to get her out of his sight.
'Get out,' he said.
Ma Hla May took
her cigarette from her mouth and tried to offer it
to Flory. 'Why is master always so angry with me when he has made
love to me?' she said.
'Get out,' he repeated.
Ma Hla May continued
to stroke Flory's shoulder. She had never
learned the wisdom of leaving him alone at these times. She
believed that lechery was a form of witchcraft, giving a woman
magical powers over a man, until in the end she could weaken him to
a half-idiotic slave. Each successive embrace sapped Flory's will
and made the spell stronger--this was her belief. She began
tormenting him to begin over again. She laid down her cigarette
and put her arms round him, trying to turn him towards her and kiss
his averted face, reproaching him for his coldness.
'Go away, go
away!' he said angrily. 'Look in the pocket of my
shorts. There is money there. Take five rupees and go.'
Ma Hla May found
the five-rupee note and stuffed it into the bosom
of her ingyi, but she still would not go. She hovered about the
bed, worrying Flory until at last he grew angry and jumped up.
'Get out of
this room! I told you to go. I don't want you in here
after I've done with you.'
'That is a nice
way to speak to me! You treat me as though I were
'So you are.
Out you go,' he said, pushing her out of the room by
her shoulders. He kicked her sandals after her. Their encounters
often ended in this way.
in the middle of the room, yawning. Should he go down
to the Club for tennis after all? No, it meant shaving, and he
could not face the effort of shaving until he had a few drinks
inside him. He felt his scrubby chin and lounged across to the
mirror to examine it, but then turned away. He did not want to see
the yellow, sunken face that would look back at him. For several
minutes he stood slack-limbed, watching the tuktoo stalk a moth
above the bookshelves. The cigarette that Ma Hla May had dropped
burned down with an acrid smell, browning the paper. Flory took a
book from the shelves, opened it and then threw it away in
distaste. He had not even the energy to read. Oh God, God, what
to do with the rest of this bloody evening?
into the room, wagging her tail and asking to be taken
for a walk. Flory went sulkily into the little stone-floored
bathroom that gave on to the bedroom, splashed himself with
lukewarm water and put on his shirt and shorts. He must take some
kind of exercise before the sun went down. In India it is in some
way evil to spend a day without being once in a muck-sweat. It
gives one a deeper sense of sin than a thousand lecheries. In the
dark evening, after a quite idle day, one's ennui reaches a pitch
that is frantic, suicidal. Work, prayer, books, drinking, talking--
they are all powerless against it; it can only be sweated out
through the pores of the skin.
Flory went out
and followed the road uphill into the jungle. It
was scrub jungle at first, with dense stunted bushes, and the only
trees were half-wild mangoes, bearing little turpentiny fruits the
size of plums. Then the road struck among taller trees. The
jungle was dried-up and lifeless at this time of year. The trees
lined the road in close, dusty ranks, with leaves a dull olive-
green. No birds were visible except some ragged brown creatures
like disreputable thrushes, which hopped clumsily under the bushes;
in the distance some other bird uttered a cry of 'AH ha ha! AH ha
ha!'--a lonely, hollow sound like the echo of a laugh. There was a
poisonous, ivy-like smell of crushed leaves. It was still hot,
though the sun was losing its glare and the slanting light was
After two miles
the road ended at the ford of a shallow stream.
The jungle grew greener here, because of the water, and the trees
were taller. At the edge of the stream there was a huge dead
pyinkado tree festooned with spidery orchids, and there were some
wild lime bushes with white waxen flowers. They had a sharp scent
like bergamot. Flory had walked fast and the sweat had drenched
his shirt and dribbled, stinging, into his eyes. He had sweated
himself into a better mood. Also, the sight of this stream always
heartened him; its water was quite clear, rarest of sights in a
miry country. He crossed the stream by the stepping stones, Flo
splashing after him, and turned into a narrow track he knew, which
led through the bushes. It was a track that cattle had made,
coming to the stream to drink, and few human beings ever followed
it. It led to a pool fifty yards upstream. Here a peepul tree
grew, a great buttressed thing six feet thick, woven of innumerable
strands of wood, like a wooden cable twisted by a giant. The roots
of the tree made a natural cavern, under which the clear greenish
water bubbled. Above and all around dense foliage shut out the
light, turning the place into a green grotto walled with leaves.
off his clothes and stepped into the water. It was a
shade cooler than the air, and it came up to his neck when he sat
down. Shoals of silvery mahseer, no bigger than sardines, came
nosing and nibbling at his body. Flo had also flopped into the
water, and she swam round silently, otter-like, with her webbed
feet. She knew the pool well, for they often came here when Flory
was at Kyauktada.
There was a
stirring high up in the peepul tree, and a bubbling
noise like pots boiling. A flock of green pigeons were up there,
eating the berries. Flory gazed up into the great green dome of
the tree, trying to distinguish the birds; they were invisible,
they matched the leaves so perfectly, and yet the whole tree was
alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were
shaking it. Flo rested herself against the roots and growled up at
the invisible creatures. Then a single green pigeon fluttered down
and perched on a lower branch. It did not know that it was being
watched. It was a tender thing, smaller than a tame dove, with
jade-green back as smooth as velvet, and neck and breast of
iridescent colours. Its legs were like the pink wax that dentists
The pigeon rocked
itself backwards and forwards on the bough,
swelling out its breast feathers and laying its coralline beak upon
them. A pang went through Flory. Alone, alone, the bitterness of
being alone! So often like this, in lonely places in the forest,
he would come upon something--bird, flower, tree--beautiful beyond
all words, if there had been a soul with whom to share it. Beauty
is meaningless until it is shared. If he had one person, just one,
to halve his loneliness! Suddenly the pigeon saw the man and dog
below, sprang into the air and dashed away swift as a bullet, with
a rattle of wings. One does not often see green pigeons so closely
when they are alive. They are high-flying birds, living in the
treetops, and they do not come to the ground, or only to drink.
When one shoots them, if they are not killed outright, they cling
to the branch until they die, and drop long after one has given up
waiting and gone away.
Flory got out
of the water, put on his clothes and recrossed the
stream. He did not go home by the road, but followed a foot-track
southward into the jungle, intending to make a detour and pass
through a village that lay in the fringe of the jungle not far from
his house. Flo frisked in and out of the undergrowth, yelping
sometimes when her long ears caught in the thorns. She had once
turned up a hare near here. Flory walked slowly. The smoke of his
pipe floated straight upwards in still plumes. He was happy and at
peace after the walk and the clear water. It was cooler now,
except for patches of heat lingering under the thicker trees, and
the light was gentle. Bullock-cart wheels were screaming
peacefully in the distance.
Soon they had
lost their way in the jungle, and were wandering in a
maze of dead trees and tangled bushes. They came to an impasse
where the path was blocked by large ugly plants like magnified
aspidistras, whose leaves terminated in long lashes armed with
thorns. A firefly glowed greenish at the bottom of a bush; it was
getting twilight in the thicker places. Presently the bullock-cart
wheels screamed nearer, taking a parallel course.
'Hey, saya gyi,
saya gyi!' Flory shouted, taking Flo by the collar
to prevent her running away.
the Burman shouted back. There was the sound of
plunging hooves and of yells to the bullocks.
if you please, O venerable and learned sir! We have
lost our way. Stop a moment, O great builder of pagodas!'
The Burman left
his cart and pushed through the jungle, slicing the
creepers with his dah. He was a squat middle-aged man with one
eye. He led the way back to the track, and Flory climbed on to the
flat, uncomfortable bullock cart. The Burman took up the string
reins, yelled to the bullocks, prodded the roots of their tails
with his short stick, and the cart jolted on with a shriek of
wheels. The Burmese bullock-cart drivers seldom grease their
axles, probably because they believe that the screaming keeps away
evil spirits, though when questioned they will say that it is
because they are too poor to buy grease.
a whitewashed wooden pagoda, no taller than a man and
half hidden by the tendrils of creeping plants. Then the track
wound into the village, which consisted of twenty ruinous, wooden
huts roofed with thatch, and a well beneath some barren date-palms.
The egrets that roosted in the palms were streaming homewards over
the treetops like white flights of arrows. A fat yellow woman with
her longyi hitched under her armpits was chasing a dog round a hut,
smacking at it with a bamboo and laughing, and the dog was also
laughing in its fashion. The village was called Nyaunglebin--'the
four peepul trees'; there were no peepul trees there now, probably
they had been cut down and forgotten a century ago. The villagers
cultivated a narrow strip of fields that lay between the town and
the jungle, and they also made bullock carts which they sold in
Kyauktada. Bullock-cart wheels were littered everywhere under the
houses; massive things five feet across, with spokes roughly but
Flory got off
the cart and gave the driver a present of four annas.
Some brindled curs hurried from beneath the houses to sniff at Flo,
and a flock of pot-bellied, naked children, with their hair tied in
top-knots, also appeared, curious about the white man but keeping
their distance. The village headman, a wizened, leaf-brown old
man, came out of his house, and there were shikoings. Flory sat
down on the steps of the headman's house and relighted his pipe.
He was thirsty.
'Is the water in your well good to drink, thugyi-min?'
reflected, scratching the calf of his left leg with his
right big toenail. 'Those who drink it, drink it, thakin. And
those who do not drink it, do not drink it.'
'Ah. That is wisdom.'
The fat woman
who had chased the pariah brought a blackened
earthenware teapot and a handleless bowl, and gave Flory some pale
green tea, tasting of wood-smoke.
'I must be going, thugyi-min. Thank you for the tea.'
'God go with you, thakin.'
Flory went home
by a path that led out on to the maidan. It was
dark now. Ko S'la had put on a clean ingyi and was waiting in the
bedroom. He had heated two kerosene tins of bath-water, lighted
the petrol lamps and laid out a clean suit and shirt for Flory.
The clean clothes were intended as a hint that Flory should shave,
dress himself and go down to the Club after dinner. Occasionally
he spent the evening in Shan trousers, loafing in a chair with a
book, and Ko S'la disapproved of this habit. He hated to see his
master behaving differently from other white men. The fact that
Flory often came back from the Club drunk, whereas he remained
sober when he stayed at home, did not alter Ko S'la's opinion,
because getting drunk was normal and pardonable in a white man.
'The woman has
gone down to the bazaar,' he announced, pleased, as
he always was when Ma Hla May left the house. 'Ba Pe has gone with
a lantern, to look after her when she comes back.'
'Good,' Flory said.
She had gone
to spend her five rupees--gambling, no doubt. 'The
holy one's bath-water is ready.'
'Wait, we must
attend to the dog first. Bring the comb,' Flory
The two men
squatted on the floor together and combed Flo's silky
coat and felt between her toes, picking out the ticks. It had to
be done every evening. She picked up vast numbers of ticks during
the day, horrible grey things that were the size of pin-heads when
they got on to her, and gorged themselves till they were as large
as peas. As each tick was detached Ko S'la put it on the floor and
carefully crushed it with his big toe.
Then Flory shaved,
bathed, dressed, and sat down to dinner. Ko
S'la stood behind his chair, handing him the dishes and fanning him
with the wicker fan. He had arranged a bowl of scarlet hibiscus
flowers in the middle of the little table. The meal was pretentious
and filthy. The clever 'Mug' cooks, descendants of servants trained
by Frenchmen in India centuries ago, can do anything with food
except make it eatable. After dinner Flory walked down to the Club,
to play bridge and get three parts drunk, as he did most evenings
when he was in Kyauktada.
In spite of the whisky he had drunk at the Club, Flory had little
sleep that night. The pariah curs were baying the moon--it was
only a quarter full and nearly down by midnight, but the dogs slept
all day in the heat, and they had begun their moon-choruses
already. One dog had taken a dislike to Flory's house, and had
settled down to bay at it systematically. Sitting on its bottom
fifty yards from the gate, it let out sharp, angry yelps, one to
half a minute, as regularly as a clock. It would keep this up for
two or three hours, until the cocks began crowing.
Flory lay turning
from side to side, his head aching. Some fool
has said that one cannot hate an animal; he should try a few nights
in India, when the dogs are baying the moon. In the end Flory
could stand it no longer. He got up, rummaged in the tin uniform
case under his bed for a rifle and a couple of cartridges, and went
out on to the veranda.
It was fairly
light in the quarter moon. He could see the dog, and
he could see his foresight. He rested himself against the wooden
pillar of the veranda and took aim carefully; then, as he felt the
hard vulcanite butt against his bare shoulder, he flinched. The
rifle had a heavy kick, and it left a bruise when one fired it.
The soft flesh of his shoulder quailed. He lowered the rifle.
He had not the nerve to fire it in cold blood.
It was no use
trying to sleep. Flory got his jacket and some
cigarettes, and began to stroll up and down the garden path,
between the ghostly flowers. It was hot, and the mosquitoes found
him out and came droning after him. Phantoms of dogs were chasing
one another on the maidan. Over to the left the gravestones of the
English cemetery glittered whitish, rather sinister, and one could
see the mounds near by, that were the remains of old Chinese tombs.
The hillside was said to be haunted, and the Club chokras cried
when they were sent up the road at night.
cur,' Flory was thinking to himself; without heat,
however, for he was too accustomed to the thought. 'Sneaking,
idling, boozing, fornicating, soul-examining, self-pitying cur.
All those fools at the Club, those dull louts to whom you are so
pleased to think yourself superior--they are all better than you,
every man of them. At least they are men in their oafish way. Not
cowards, not liars. Not half-dead and rotting. But you--'
He had reason
to call himself names. There had been a nasty, dirty
affair at the Club that evening. Something quite ordinary, quite
according to precedent; but still dingy, cowardly, dishonouring.
When Flory had
arrived at the Club only Ellis and Maxwell were
there. The Lackersteens had gone to the station with the loan of
Mr Macgregor's car, to meet their niece, who was to arrive by the
night train. The three men were playing three-handed bridge fairly
amicably when Westfield came in, his sandy face quite pink with
rage, bringing a copy of a Burmese paper called the Burmese
Patriot. There was a libellous article in it, attacking Mr
Macgregor. The rage of Ellis and Westfield was devilish. They
were so angry that Flory had the greatest difficulty in pretending
to be angry enough to satisfy them. Ellis spent five minutes in
cursing and then, by some extraordinary process, made up his mind
that Dr Veraswami was responsible for the article. And he had
thought of a counterstroke already. They would put a notice on the
board--a notice answering and contradicting the one Mr Macgregor
had posted the day before. Ellis wrote it out immediately, in his
tiny, clear handwriting:
'In view of
the cowardly insult recently offered to our Deputy
commissioner, we the undersigned wish to give it as our opinion
that this is the worst possible moment to consider the election of
niggers to this Club,' etc ,etc.
to 'niggers'. It was crossed out by a single
thin line and 'natives' substituted. The notice was signed
'R. Westfield, P. W. Ellis, C. W. Maxwell, J. Flory.'
Ellis was so
pleased with his idea that quite half of his anger
evaporated. The notice would accomplish nothing in itself, but the
news of it would travel swiftly round the town, and would reach Dr
Veraswami tomorrow. In effect, the doctor would have been publicly
called a nigger by the European community. This delighted Ellis.
For the rest of the evening he could hardly keep his eyes from the
notice-board, and every few minutes he exclaimed in glee, 'That'll
give little fat-belly something to think about, eh? Teach the
little sod what we think of him. That's the way to put 'em in
their place, eh?' etc.
had signed a public insult to his friend. He had
done it for the same reason as he had done a thousand such things
in his life; because he lacked the small spark of courage that was
needed to refuse. For, of course, he could have refused if he had
chosen; and, equally of course, refusal would have meant a row with
Ellis and Westfield. And oh, how he loathed a row! The nagging,
the jeers! At the very thought of it he flinched; he could feel
his birthmark palpable on his cheek, and something happening in his
throat that made his voice go flat and guilty. Not that! It was
easier to insult his friend, knowing that his friend must hear of
Flory had been
fifteen years in Burma, and in Burma one learns not
to set oneself up against public opinion. But his trouble was
older than that. It had begun in his mother's womb, when chance
put the blue birthmark on his cheek. He thought of some of the
early effects of his birthmark. His first arrival at school, aged
nine; the stares and, after a few days, shouts of the other boys;
the nickname Blueface, which lasted until the school poet (now,
Flory remembered, a critic who wrote rather good articles in the
Nation) came out with the couplet:
New-tick Flory does look rum,
Got a face like a monkey's bum,
whereupon the nickname was changed to Monkey-bum. And the
subsequent years. On Saturday nights the older boys used to have
what they called a Spanish Inquisition. The favourite torture was
for someone to hold you in a very painful grip known only to a few
illuminati and called Special Togo, while someone else beat you
with a conker on a piece of string. But Flory had lived down
'Monkey-bum' in time. He was a liar, and a good footballer, the
two things absolutely necessary for success at school. In his last
term he and another boy held the school poet in Special Togo while
the captain of the eleven gave him six with a spiked running shoe
for being caught writing a sonnet. It was a formative period.
From that school
he went to a cheap, third-rate public school. It
was a poor, spurious place. It aped the great public schools with
their traditions of High Anglicanism, cricket and Latin verses, and
it had a school song called 'The Scrum of Life' in which God
figured as the Great Referee. But it lacked the chief virtue of
the great public schools, their atmosphere of literary scholarship.
The boys learned as nearly as possible nothing. There was not
enough caning to make them swallow the dreary rubbish of the
curriculum, and the wretched, underpaid masters were not the kind
from whom one absorbs wisdom unawares. Flory left school a
barbarous young lout. And yet even then there were, and he knew
it, certain possibilities in him; possibilities that would lead to
trouble as likely as not. But, of course, he had suppressed them.
A boy does not start his career nicknamed Monkey-bum without
learning his lesson.
He was not quite
twenty when he came to Burma. His parents, good
people and devoted to him, had found him a place in a timber firm.
They had had great difficulty in getting him the job, had paid a
premium they could not afford; later, he had rewarded them by
answering their letters with careless scrawls at intervals of
months. His first six months in Burma he had spent in Rangoon,
where he was supposed to be learning the office side of his
business. He had lived in a 'chummery' with four other youths who
devoted their entire energies to debauchery. And what debauchery!
They swilled whisky which they privately hated, they stood round
the piano bawling songs of insane filthiness and silliness, they
squandered rupees by the hundred on aged Jewish whores with the
faces of crocodiles. That too had been a formative period.
he had gone to a camp in the jungle, north of
Mandalay, extracting teak. The jungle life was not a bad one, in
spite of the discomfort, the loneliness, and what is almost the
worst thing in Burma, the filthy, monotonous food. He was very
young then, young enough for hero-worship, and he had friends among
the men in his firm. There were also shooting, fishing, and
perhaps once in a year a hurried trip to Rangoon--pretext, a visit
to the dentist. Oh, the joy of those Rangoon trips! The rush to
Smart and Mookerdum's bookshop for the new novels out from England,
the dinner at Anderson's with beefsteaks and butter that had
travelled eight thousand miles on ice, the glorious drinking-bout!
He was too young to realize what this life was preparing for him.
He did not see the years stretching out ahead, lonely, eventless,
himself to Burma. His body grew attuned to the
strange rhythms of the tropical seasons. Every year from February
to May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly
the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy
ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one's
clothes, one's bed nor even one's food ever seemed to be dry. It
was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle
paths turned into morasses, and the paddy-fields were wastes of
stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were
mildewed. Naked Burmans in yard-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed
the paddy-fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water.
Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy,
dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks.
Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then
one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds.
The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains
tailed off, ending in October. The fields dried up, the paddy
ripened, the Burmese children played hop-scotch with gonyin seeds
and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the
short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of
England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the
same as the English ones, but very like them--honeysuckle in thick
bushes, field roses smelling of pear-drops, even violets in dark
places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the
nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that
poured through the valleys like the steam of enormous kettles. One
went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless
myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a
roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening
paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmans went
to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across
their breasts, their faces yellow and pinched with the cold. In
the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wilderness,
clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where
monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun. At
night, coming back to camp through the cold lanes, one met herds of
buffaloes which the boys were driving home, with their huge horns
looming through the mist like crescents. One had three blankets on
one's bed, and game pies instead of the eternal chicken. After
dinner one sat on a log by the vast camp-fire, drinking beer and
talking about shooting. The flames danced like red holly, casting
a circle of light at the edge of which servants and coolies
squatted, too shy to intrude on the white men and yet edging up to
the fire like dogs. As one lay in bed one could hear the dew
dripping from the trees like large but gentle rain. It was a good
life while one was young and need not think about the future or the
Flory was twenty-four,
and due for home leave, when the War broke
out. He had dodged military service, which was easy to do and
seemed natural at the time. The civilians in Burma had a
comforting theory that 'sticking by one's job' (wonderful language,
English! 'Sticking BY'--how different from 'sticking TO') was the
truest patriotism; there was even a covert hostility towards the
men who threw up their jobs in order to join the Army. In reality,
Flory had dodged the War because the East already corrupted him,
and he did not want to exchange his whisky, his servants and his
Burmese girls for the boredom of the parade ground and the strain
of cruel marches. The War rolled on, like a storm beyond the
horizon. The hot, blowsy country, remote from danger, had a
lonely, forgotten feeling. Flory took to reading voraciously, and
learned to live in books when life was tiresome. He was growing
adult, tiring of boyish pleasures, learning to think for himself,
his twenty-seventh birthday in hospital, covered from
head to foot with hideous sores which were called mud-sores, but
were probably caused by whisky and bad food. They left little pits
in his skin which did not disappear for two years. Quite suddenly
he had begun to look and feel very much older. His youth was
finished. Eight years of Eastern life, fever, loneliness and
intermittent drinking, had set their mark on him.
each year had been lonelier and more bitter than the
last. What was at the centre of all his thoughts now, and what
poisoned everything, was the ever bitterer hatred of the atmosphere
of imperialism in which he lived. For as his brain developed--you
cannot stop your brain developing, and it is one of the tragedies
of the half-educated that they develop late, when they are already
committed to some wrong way of life--he had grasped the truth about
the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism--
benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final
object. And as to the English of the East, the sahiblog, Flory had
come so to hate them from living in their society, that he was
quite incapable of being fair to them. For after all, the poor
devils are no worse than anybody else. They lead unenviable lives;
it is a poor bargain to spend thirty years, ill-paid, in an alien
country, and then come home with a wrecked liver and a pine-apple
backside from sitting in cane chairs, to settle down as the bore of
some second-rate Club. On the other hand, the sahiblog are not to
be idealized. There is a prevalent idea that the men at the
'outposts of Empire' are at least able and hardworking. It is a
delusion. Outside the scientific services--the Forest Department,
the Public Works Department and the like--there is no particular
need for a British official in India to do his job competently.
Few of them work as hard or as intelligently as the postmaster of a
provincial town in England. The real work of administration is
done mainly by native subordinates; and the real backbone of the
despotism is not the officials but the Army. Given the Army, the
officials and the businessmen can rub along safely enough even if
they are fools. And most of them ARE fools. A dull, decent
people, cherishing and fortifying their dullness behind a quarter
of a million bayonets.
It is a stifling,
stultifying world in which to live. It is a
world in which every word and every thought is censored. In
England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is
free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in
private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist
when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free
speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted.
You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a
fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your
opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated
for you by the pukka sahibs' code.
In the end the
secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret
disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you
sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to right of you,
Pink'un to left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while
Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists
should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called
'greasy little babus', and you admit, dutifully, that they ARE
greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-
haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your
own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their
Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honourable, hardly
even any sincerity. For, au fond, what do you care if the Indian
Empire is a despotism, if Indians are bullied and exploited? You
only care because the right of free speech is denied you. You are
a creature of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a
monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus.
and each year Flory found himself less at home in the
world of the sahibs, more liable to get into trouble when he talked
seriously on any subject whatever. So he had learned to live
inwardly, secretly, in books and secret thoughts that could not be
uttered. Even his talks with the doctor were a kind of talking to
himself; for the doctor, good man, understood little of what was
said to him. But it is a corrupting thing to live one's real life
in secret. One should live with the stream of life, not against
it. It would be better to be the thickest-skulled pukka sahib who
ever hiccuped over 'Forty years on', than to live silent, alone,
consoling oneself in secret, sterile worlds.
Flory had never
been home to England. Why, he could not have
explained, though he knew well enough. In the beginning accidents
had prevented him. First there was the War, and after the War his
firm were so short of trained assistants that they would not let
him go for two years more. Then at last he had set out. He was
pining for England, though he dreaded facing it, as one dreads
facing a pretty girl when one is collarless and unshaven. When he
left home he had been a boy, a promising boy and handsome in spite
of his birthmark; now, only ten years later, he was yellow, thin,
drunken, almost middle-aged in habits and appearance. Still, he
was pining for England. The ship rolled westward over wastes of
sea like rough-beaten silver, with the winter trade wind behind
her. Flory's thin blood quickened with the good food and the smell
of the sea. And it occurred to him--a thing he had actually
forgotten in the stagnant air of Burma--that he was still young
enough to begin over again. He would live a year in a civilized
society, he would find some girl who did not mind his birthmark--
a civilized girl, not a pukka memsahib--and he would marry her and
endure ten, fifteen more years of Burma. Then they would retire--
he would be worth twelve or fifteen thousand pounds on retirement,
perhaps. They would buy a cottage in the country, surround
themselves with friends, books, their children, animals. They
would be free for ever of the smell of pukka sahibdom. He would
forget Burma, the horrible country that had come near ruining him.
When he reached
Colombo he found a cable waiting for him. Three
men in his firm had died suddenly of black-water fever. The firm
were sorry, but would he please return to Rangoon at once? He
should have his leave at the earliest possible opportunity.
the next boat for Rangoon, cursing his luck, and took
the train back to his headquarters. He was not at Kyauktada then,
but at another Upper Burma town. All the servants were waiting for
him on the platform. He had handed them over en bloc to his
successor, who had died. It was so queer to see their familiar
faces again! Only ten days ago he had been speeding for England,
almost thinking himself in England already; and now back in the old
stale scene, with the naked black coolies squabbling over the
luggage and a Burman shouting at his bullocks down the road.
came crowding round him, a ring of kindly brown faces,
offering presents. Ko S'la had brought a sambhur skin, the Indians
some sweetmeats and a garland of marigolds, Ba Pe, a young boy
then, a squirrel in a wicker cage. There were bullock carts
waiting for the luggage. Flory walked up to the house, looking
ridiculous with the big garland dangling from his neck. The light
of the cold-weather evening was yellow and kind. At the gate an
old Indian, the colour of earth, was cropping grass with a tiny
sickle. The wives of the cook and the mali were kneeling in front
of the servants' quarters, grinding curry paste on the stone slab.
over in Flory's heart. It was one of those moments
when one becomes conscious of a vast change and deterioration in
one's life. For he had realized, suddenly, that in his heart he was
glad to be coming back. This country which he hated was now his
native country, his home. He had lived here ten years, and every
particle of his body was compounded of Burmese soil. Scenes like
these--the sallow evening light, the old Indian cropping grass, the
creak of the cartwheels, the streaming egrets--were more native to
him than England. He had sent deep roots, perhaps his deepest, into
a foreign country.
Since then he
had not even applied for home leave. His father had
died, then his mother, and his sisters, disagreeable horse-faced
women whom he had never liked, had married and he had almost lost
touch with them. He had no tie with Europe now, except the tie of
books. For he had realized that merely to go back to England was
no remedy for loneliness; he had grasped the special nature of the
hell that is reserved for Anglo-Indians. Ah, those poor prosing
old wrecks in Bath and Cheltenham! Those tomb-like boarding-houses
with Anglo-Indians littered about in all stages of decomposition,
all talking and talking about what happened in Boggleywalah in '88!
Poor devils, they know what it means to have left one's heart in an
alien and hated country. There was, he saw clearly, only one way
out. To find someone who would share his life in Burma--but really
share it, share his inner, secret life, carry away from Burma the
same memories as he carried. Someone who would love Burma as he
loved it and hate it as he hated it. Who would help him to live
with nothing hidden, nothing unexpressed. Someone who understood
him: a friend, that was what it came down to.
A friend. Or
a wife? That quite impossible she. Someone like Mrs
Lackersteen, for instance? Some damned memsahib, yellow and thin,
scandalmongering over cocktails, making kit-kit with the servants,
living twenty years in the country without learning a word of the
language. Not one of those, please God.
over the gate. The moon was vanishing behind the dark
wall of the jungle, but the dogs were still howling. Some lines
from Gilbert came into his mind, a vulgar silly jingle but
appropriate--something about 'discoursing on your complicated state
of mind'. Gilbert was a gifted little skunk. Did all his trouble,
then, simply boil down to that? Just complicated, unmanly
whinings; poor-little-rich-girl stuff? Was he no more than a
loafer using his idleness to invent imaginary woes? A spiritual
Mrs Wititterly? A Hamlet without poetry? Perhaps. And if so, did
that make it any more bearable? It is not the less bitter because
it is perhaps one's own fault, to see oneself drifting, rotting, in
dishonour and horrible futility, and all the while knowing that
somewhere within one there is the possibility of a decent human
Oh well, God
save us from self-pity! Flory went back to the
veranda, took up the rifle, and wincing slightly, let drive at the
pariah dog. There was an echoing roar, and the bullet buried
itself in the maidan, wide of the mark. A mulberry-coloured bruise
sprang out on Flory's shoulder. The dog gave a yell of fright,
took to its heels, and then, sitting down fifty yards farther away,
once more began rhythmically baying.